The smoke from oil wells set ablaze by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) still fills the sky around al-Qayyarah more than two months after Iraqi forces ousted the group from the area, local residents told Diyaruna.
Iraqi officials say the thick smoke from the fires ISIL set as it retreated from the district to the south-east of Mosul was intended to provide a smokescreen that would help to protect the group from Iraqi and coalition airstrikes.
This has not worked, they said, adding that it has only served to extend the suffering residents were forced to endure under the group's rule.
In addition to the cloud of black smoke, a layer of soot has formed on trees, clothing, buildings and even on the skin of cattle and sheep, al-Qayyarah residents said, and the residual smoke is causing them to choke and cough.
The elderly and ill are particularly badly afflicted, they said.
"As soon as the terrorists felt they had lost the battle, they set fire to the wells and escaped," said Abu Nidal, an al-Qayyarah resident who asked to use a pseudonym out of concern for his safety.
"They left us to suffer from this suffocating crisis," he told Diyaruna.
In addition to the air pollution caused by the smoke, he said, burning oil flowed in the streets, blocking roads and spreading unpleasant odours.
Children complain that they cannot sleep at night, saying the fumes make it hard to breathe, while mothers say their families' clothes turn black every day, only for soot to cover them again on the clothesline after they are washed.
Serious health concerns
The pollution from the burning oil wells has caused serious harm to people's health, Ministry of Health media spokesman Ahmed Radini told Diyaruna.
This can cause short-term conditions such as the exacerbation of allergies and shortness of breath due to the increased level of airborne pollution, he said, as well as long-term damage, such as lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis.
In addition to the smoke from burning oil wells, Radini said, there is smoke in the air from the burning of the al-Mishraq sulphur plant .
Following this incident, about 500 people with symptoms of suffocation were taken to hospitals in nearby cities where they received oxygen therapy, he said.
"The Ministry of Health has mobilised its entire staff to confront this humanitarian crisis," Radini said.
Three hospitals and nine health centres in Ninawa province have been provided with all the necessary supplies and equipment to deal with cases of smoke inhalation, he said.
The ministry also is working in co-ordination with the Ministry of Health in the Kurdish region and with the Salaheddine and Kirkuk health departments to treat these types of cases, Radini said.
Extinguishing the fires
Immediately after al-Qayyarah's liberation, Oil Ministry teams moved in to extinguish the blazing wells, ministry spokesman Assem Jihad told Diyaruna.
Specialised technical and engineering teams from the North Oil Company worked in co-ordination with security teams, he said, and have successfully extinguished the fire in a number of those wells.
The teams also have worked to prevent oil spills from seeping into the city's streets, canals and residential neighbourhoods, he said.
This task has not been easy, however, Jihad said.
"[ISIL] booby-trapped well heads and the surrounding areas, which made the effort very complicated and delayed the completion of the mission," he said.
Ministry teams are continuing to extinguish the remaining wells and have reinforced its cadres with new teams, he said, but some wells are located in areas of military engagement where work cannot yet begin.
The damage is not limited to the environment and public health, he said, but includes significant damage to the Iraqi economy for the years ISIL controlled the oil fields and the subsequent burning of this critical national wealth.
Military operations move forward
"The ministry does not currently have a thorough report on the size of the losses," Jihad said. "But it will work, after extinguishing the flames, on accounting for the extent of the devastation caused by the group and the size of material losses it caused to the country."
However, he stressed, "we stopped the smuggling of oil forever, and we are working to stop its burning, so we will have eliminated the issue of wasting Iraq's national wealth".
ISIL's burning of oil wells will "absolutely not affect the conduct of military operations for the liberation of Mosul", Ninawa operations commander Maj. Gen. Nejm Edin al-Jubury told Diyaruna.
"It has not, and will never, affect the performance of the air forces in the battle," he added.
The Iraqi army is making remarkable progress in the battles to liberate Mosul and has not been hindered by the burning wells, he said, noting that only the area from al-Qayyarah to al-Shura has been affected by the fires.