A soldier's photos from Iraq reveal a beautiful yet hellish landscape that's choking with toxic smoke

Oil-well fires have raged for months near Mosul, Iraq, and US soldiers in the region are choking on the toxic smoke and haze.

ISIS chose Mosul as its stronghold in the country about two years ago and have prepared for an assault ever since, according to Peter Bergen at CNN.

But as part of more recent efforts to slow the advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by a US-led coalition, which aims to take back the city and nearby towns and villages, ISIS militants torched oil wells and a sulphur mine near Qayyarah, located about 40 miles south of Mosul.

The plumes of fumes are so large that NASA can see them spreading into nearby countries from space. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians on the ground are breathing it in. (Although the US has no ground troops in the Mosul advance, they are stationed nearby to provide air and intelligence support.)

Bill Duncan, a US soldier stationed in the region, has been photographing the scene from his base and posting them to National Geographic’s “Your Shot” photography site. Duncan gave Business Insider permission to republish his photos here, along with captions he wrote, yet declined to comment further on his situation.

Here are some of Duncan’s arresting photos, plus other images from war photographers and satellites that reveal what Duncan describes as a problem that could “haunt us for years to come.”

ISIS militants set fire to oil wells months ago near Qayyarah. A more recent sulphur plant fire (white smoke) has since been extinguished.

However, such blazes release clouds of a noxious gas called sulphur dioxide. On contact with moisture -- including wet skin and a person's lungs -- it turns to sulfuric acid. The damage can persist in soil and people for years.

Bill Duncan, a soldier of 15 years, has been photographing the hellish yet eerily beautiful problem. He says photography is his 'method of dealing with everything, and it continues to provide an outlet from war and conflict.'

Duncan wrote about this photo, called 'Burning Oil Fields in Iraq':

'This is a mushroom cloud caused by an oil field fire, set by ISIS during their retreat. (...) Regretfully, the smoke is no doubt changing the environment forever...and my lungs. I am forward deployed in support of the Mosul Offensive.

'On a day without wind, burning oil fields set ablaze by ISIS form what almost looks like an explosion. Burning for months continuously, it remains too dangerous to put out....But the cost of letting them burn will haunt us for years to come. With all the focus on defeating ISIS, I begin to worry that the environmental cost is being overlooked at the expense of future generations.'

Sources: Bill Duncan via National Geographic (1, 2, 3)

'At night, climbing high up from an undisclosed location in Iraq I shot this one. The oil fields glow hauntingly in the distance as tons of CO2 enters our atmosphere from the oil fields set ablaze by ISIS.'

'The sun is rising not over the horizon or land, that's a layer of smoke. From oil fires and sulphur fires, my lungs are not happy. But if you look closely, you'll see that the land is below the smoke and there are no mountains where I'm at. Definitely a unique location, regretfully filed with pollution and danger.'

'I left the walls of our base and took this picture of the burning oil fields(...). (T)he environmental damage caused by the ongoing international situation with ISIS needs to be addressed on its own, rather then as a junior partner to an already crowded firm.'

'Under the shadow of war, my friend fell asleep while writing a letter home on deployment to Iraq. People always think of war as fighting and high energy, they rarely consider the exhaustion and struggle to connect with family back home. This picture illustrates our struggle, in the shadows of conflict we strive to retain our relationships with our loved ones.'

Sources: Bill Duncan via National Geographic (1, 2)

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