BAGHDAD (AP) — The Islamic State group's deliberate destruction of agriculture in northern Iraq has hindered the return of hundreds of thousands of residents, Amnesty International said in a report released Thursday.
The New York-based rights group said IS fighters burnt or chopped down orchards and sabotaged wells by filling them with rubble, oil or other materials. The militants also stole or destroyed pumps, cables, generators, transformers and vital electricity lines.
Amnesty called on the Iraqi government to repair rural infrastructure and compensate the displaced so they can return to their homes.
IS seized control of much of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. U.S.-backed Iraqi forces gradually drove the militants from all the territory under their control, declaring victory a year ago after a costly campaign that destroyed entire neighborhoods and towns.
"The damage to Iraq's countryside is as far-reaching as the urban destruction, but the consequences of the conflict on Iraq's rural residents are being largely forgotten," said Richard Pearshouse, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty.
He said the report focuses on the "deliberate, wanton destruction" around the area of Sinjar, where the extremists massacred and enslaved thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority. About half of Sinjar's residents have returned, with many others saying they have nothing to go back to.
Beyond Sinjar, Amnesty's report gave sobering figures for all of Iraq.
"The conflict against IS eviscerated Iraq's agricultural production, now an estimated 40 percent lower than 2014 levels," it said. "Before IS, around two-thirds of Iraq's farmers had access to irrigation — only three years later, this had fallen to 20 percent. Around 75 percent of livestock was lost, spiking to 95 percent in some areas."
Syrian and Iraqi forces have gradually driven IS out of nearly all the territory it once held. But the group still maintains a presence in the Syrian desert and remote areas along the border. Many have warned it could stage a comeback if economic grievances are not addressed.
"Unless there is urgent government assistance, the long-term damage inflicted on Iraq's rural environment will reverberate for years to come," Pearshouse said. "When IS tore through Iraq in 2014, it thrived off rural poverty and resentments, so Iraq's government should be concerned that something similar could happen again."