Back in 1991, when the Iraq army was retreating from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, it unleashed a literal "scorched earth" tactic as it set fire to some 600 oil wells, leading to iconic photos such as this one.
Twenty-five years later, in an ironic twist, it was ISIS fighters who returned the favor, and while fleeing an Iraqi toawn, they did their best to raze it to the ground by flooding the streets with oil and setting it on fire.
Pressured by the latest advance of coalition forces approaching the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul in the north of the country, the jihadists were forced to retreat from Qayyara by Iraqi soldiers. As they fled, they took a page from the Iraq's own army as they ISIS bombed pipelines and set fire to nearby oil wells, creating an endless cloud of black smoke that blocked out the sun, leaving the town shrouded in darkness in an eerie redux of scenes from 1991.
Smoke billowing into the sky during a Reuters visit on Monday blotted out the sun in central districts hours before nightfall, producing an "apocalyptic scene" in this desert settlement which lacks electricity amid 49 degree Celsius (120°F) temperatures.
While Baghdad wants to retake Mosul before the end of the year, which it says will effectively end the militants' presence in Iraq more than two years after they seized a third of its territory, some officials from countries in the U.S.-led coalition supporting the Iraqi forces have said that timeline may be too ambitious. However, the loss of Qayyara will certainly deal a blow to Islamic State, which had extracted oil from some 60 wells and sold it to help finance its activities.
A boy stands near oil spill from wells, set ablaze by Islamic State militants before
fleeing the oil-producing region of Qayyara, in Qayyara, Iraq
Islamic State used to ship at least 50 tanker truckloads a day from Qayyara and nearby Najma oilfields to neighboring Syria, from where much of it was exported to Turkey. A sign remains on the main road announcing prices of crude in places like the Syrian city of Aleppo, 550 km (340 miles) west of Qayyara. Rudimentary refineries once used to refine oil for local consumption have been abandoned on the side of the road leading east out of the town.
In the meantime, anyone taking a casual stroll through Qayyara will have a first hand account of what hell feels like. The smell of petrol now overwhelms the area, wind carrying the smoke from well fires into the town center. More than a few minutes in the area leaves one's throat burning, and children walking the streets have quickly developed coughs.
Abdel Aziz Saleh, a 25-year-old Qayyara resident, said he wants Baghdad to put out the fires as soon as possible. "They are suffocating us," he said. "The birds, the animals are black, the people are black. Gas rains down on us at night. Now the gas has reached the residential areas."
Alas, the Iraqi government has for now forsaken the people of this northern town. While Iraq said it has put out fires at four oil wells in the Qayyara region, but Reuters could not locate any such efforts at the wells closest to residential areas.
Around a dozen separate plumes of smoke were still distinguishable across the horizon as night fell, when a convoy of firetrucks approached the town.
Fires rise from oil wells, set ablaze by Islamic State militants
It was not immediately clear how long it will take to extinguish the flames. When Iraq's military torched hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells in 1991 ahead of advancing U.S.-led forces, most fires burned for around two months but some wells were not capped for almost a year. To be sure, Baghdad is in no rush to restore order: the oil ministry said it does not expect to resume production from the Qayyara region before Mosul's recapture. The two main fields, Qayyara and Najma, used to produce 30,000 barrels per day of heavy crude before the takeover by Islamic State.
Despite the apocalyptic conditions, Qayyara remains full of inhabitants. Whereas civilians in most other areas recaptured from Islamic State fled ahead of or during government offensives the majority of Qayyara's roughly 20,000 residents have stayed put. A counter-terrorism officer said that was partly due to the speed with which the army recaptured Qayyara, surprising the Islamic State fighters before they were able to dig in. Qayyara is also located near a military airfield, so many residents in the area have relatives in the army.
The good news for the locals is that commanders are confident electricity can be restored soon in Qayyara and said booby trapped streets and buildings are less of a concern than they were in the western cities of Ramadi and Falluja. "We surrounded them quickly, so they didn't have time to lay many IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," said the officer from the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS), which spearheaded the Qayyara operation along with the army's 9th armored division. "There were a lot on the main street they thought we would use to enter but instead we came in from the desert."
The approach to the city shows signs of the fighting that followed, with many buildings collapsed by aerial bombardment. The U.S.-led coalition said it had launched more than 500 air strikes in support of Iraqi forces, nearly as many as in last year's battle for the much larger city of Ramadi. However, it is what ISIS did as it was fleeing that was memorable.
Meanwhile, the capture of this strategic town virtually asures that the battle for Mosul will soon be won: Qayyara and its nearby airbase, where the bulk of a 560-strong U.S. troop reinforcement will be based, will form the main staging base for the anticipated offensive on Mosul, 60 km (35 miles) to the north.