The Islamic State’s Scorched-Earth Strategy
As the jihadi group loses ground in northern Iraq, it’s leaving poisoned wells and burnt farms in its wake.
Photography by Ali Arkady
In these flat, fertile expanses far to the north of Baghdad, traumatized locals are starting to wake up to the wider implications of the Islamic State’s demolition job.
Fruit and vegetable prices have soared in the absence of domestic produce, with onions that once went for 25 cents per kilogram now selling for 90 cents at Dibis’s bazaar. The price of apples has doubled from 65 cents per kilogram to $1.35, as imported goods from Eastern Europe and neighboring countries fill the gaps in the market.
Even meat has become more expensive, as the chaos of war saddles distributors with extra costs. At an unlicensed livestock market on a highway verge just west of Kirkuk, traders complained that bribes demanded by Shiite militiamen and Kurdish peshmerga at checkpoints have boosted the price of a sheep from 150,000 Iraqi dinars to 200,000 Iraqi dinars over the past month alone.
Already battered by the loss of income, ordinary Iraqis must now contend with food bills that many can ill afford.
“You can’t imagine the humiliation of not knowing if you can feed your family every month,” said Abbas Omar, whose business selling Turkish-made irrigation systems in Dibis has largely ground to a halt as locals rein in spending.
For the Iraqi government, too, the loss of much of its domestic agriculture and destruction of the northern rural economy could not have come at a worse time. The collapse in the oil price has slashed revenues and led to a budget deficit of at least $20 billion. With less wheat and barley coming from its agricultural heartlands, the state has become less food secure and more dependent on Turkish, Saudi, and Iranian imports.
“This was the food basket of Iraq, but now we’re not producing anything,” said Mubarak, the Kirkuk agriculture official. Before the Islamic State, his governorate produced 450,000 metric tons of wheat, 250,000 tons of barley, and 100,000 tons of cotton. Ravaged by war and by farmers’ unwillingness to invest, it currently produces less than a quarter of that.