Oil fires blaze near hub for Mosul operation
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 28, 2016
QAYARA AIRFIELD WEST, Iraq — Black smoke from oil fires set by fleeing Islamic State fighters spews into the skies around Qayara Airfield West where U.S. advisers are helping the Iraqi army oversee the campaign to free the key northern city of Mosul.
Driving through the town of Qayara on Thursday, flocks of white sheep were stained black, and there was so much oil on an Iraqi flag fluttering at the top of a pole that it resembled the dark Islamic State group’s banner.
U.S. troops were stationed at this air base from 2003 to 2010, and only returned at the beginning of October, after Iraqi forces pushed out the Islamic State, which had occupied the base for two years. The militants had destroyed the runway and set nearby oil wells and a sulfur mine on fire.
The U.S. advisers here wear gas masks when the air quality gets bad, said Maj. Christopher Parker, a coalition spokesman at the base, which U.S. soldiers call Q-West.
It was not immediately clear how much of a health risk the fires and fumes presented to personnel at the base. The much more extensive oil fires deliberately set by Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1991 Gulf War, are believed to be responsible for an increased risk of many illnesses and symptoms associated with Gulf War illness among veterans who served in that conflict. These include chronic fatigue syndrome, functional gastrointestinal conditions and mental health disorders, as well as headaches, joint pain, insomnia and respiratory issues.
The push to get U.S. advisers to Qayara and reconstruct the runway was part of the preparation for the offensive begun less than two weeks ago to retake Mosul, the last major stronghold of the Islamic State group in Iraq.
The first U.S. C-130J Hercules transport plane landed there Oct. 21 after a three-week effort by engineers from the Air Force’s 1st Expeditionary Civil Engineer Group to repair the runway under hostile fire, according to the Air Force.
The runway had mounds of dirt and trenches and improvised explosive devices,” Parker, 41, of Rome, Ga., said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Army engineers from the 101st Airborne Division’s Task Force Strike built a secure compound for the U.S. advisors at Q-West.
The offensive aimed at recapturing Mosul, occupied by the Islamic State in a surprise attack in 2014, is now in full swing, a year after preparations for the operation started. Approximately 28,000 Iraqi army troops, Kurdish peshmerga and various paramilitary groups are advancing on the city. About 5,000 militants are believed to be defending Mosul and coalition commanders expect bloody urban combat when their forces enter the city.
Q-West air base, is a logistical hub for resupplying frontline troops as they push toward Mosul. It’s also a casualty evacuation point for Iraqi and coalition forces fighting in northern Iraq, according to the Air Force.
U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, M109 Paladin howitzers and French CAESAR guns have been firing at the enemy from positions on the air base, Parker said.
No aircraft are based at Q-West but C-130s land with U.S. personnel, and cargo planes and helicopters refuel there, he said.
Thousands of Iraqi troops have set out from the air base for the front lines, Parker said.
Brig. Gen. Firas Bashar, 47, a spokesman for Iraqi forces at the base, said the Iraqi Army’s 15th Division has advanced 13 miles north across the Nineveh plains since the Mosul Operation started Oct. 17, but it’s still 20 miles away from the city.
The push in the south is going well, he said, but it hasn’t been as rapid as that of the elite Iraqi Army Golden Division and Kurdish peshmerga fighters in other areas.
“It will take less than a month to capture the city,” Bashar said, with optimism cultivated over a military career that began during the rule of Saddam Hussein and continued during the U.S. occupation.
Iraqi troops moving north from Q-West have killed more than 700 enemy fighters and destroyed 30 car bombs and 600 improvised explosives, Bashar said, and Iraqi engineers have put out 10 oil fires so far.
“Only a few are still burning,” he claimed, although outside the air base dozens of oil wells still belched black fumes.
Zainab Olivo contributed to this report.