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Iraq: Deminers Clear 1 Million Mines, Bombs From North, But Daunting Task Remains

  • Charles Recknagel --> Deminers say they have cleared 1 million mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance in northern Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein a year ago. That is noteworthy progress toward removing a menace that today kills or injures at least 20 people a month in the area. But it also is a measure of how much still remains to be done.

Prague, 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The largest international demining organization working in northern Iraq says it has cleared and destroyed 1 million land mines and other explosives around the cities of Irbil, Mosul, and Kirkuk.

The nonprofit Mines Advisory Group (MAG) says it has removed the materiel -- including antipersonnel and antitank mines, cluster bomblets, rockets, mortar rounds and other unexploded ordnance -- in the 11 months since Washington declared the end of major combat in Iraq.

Sean Sutton, MAG's spokesman at its headquarters in Birmingham, England, says the fact that such a large amount of munitions could be collected so quickly is a sobering measure of how much ordnance litters the country.

Demining experts classify Iraq as among the four countries in the world with the most mines and unexploded ordnance on their soil. The other three are Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia.
He says that much of the ordnance lies now in unguarded storage areas that were originally set up by the Iraqi army as part of its plans to combat the U.S.-led invasion last year. At the same time, extensive minefields still cover Iraq's border areas with Iran from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Other minefields still dot northern Iraq from Baghdad's campaigns against the Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sutton calls the quantities of munitions stockpiled in what formerly were Hussein-controlled areas of northern Iraq "enormous." He says he still recalls his astonishment when he visited the area immediately after the toppling of Hussein's regime last year.

"[The quantity of ordnance] was enormous, which is why those statistics [for the clearance of ordnance since May] are as they are, you know -- a million items in a year. It was just unbelievable, and it was all over the place," Sutton said.

He continues, "In Kirkuk, for example, the Iraqi forces had outer defenses quite far from the city, then immediately around Kirkuk, and then inside Kirkuk, as well. They had trench lines and tank positions and all sorts of things dug out in and around buildings, and they had enormous stockpiles of munitions ready. And when they left they took their weapons with them and tanks, but they left the piles and piles of ordnance. There were at least half a dozen schools in Kirkuk alone that were used to stockpile ordnance."

The precipitous retreat of Hussein's forces from northern Iraq during the March-April war left the widely scattered stockpiles unprotected. The U.S. military has since tried to keep the largest ammunition depots from being used by anticoalition fighters, but the stockpiles have proved too numerous for authorities to secure completely.

Sutton says the unexploded ordnance irresistibly attracts adults and children. Cash-strapped families regard the abandoned ammunition as a way to make money by salvaging valuable parts and selling them to scrap-metal dealers. Children often view the munitions as potential fireworks. The result is frequently injury or death.

The demining expert says children are particularly attracted by the cordite-filled booster charges at the base of mortar shells. The charges are designed to explode when the shell is dropped into a mortar. The force of the explosion propels the round toward its target.

The demining expert describes watching one group of boys retrieving cordite cartridges as they played at a weapons dump in Iraq last year.

"[The boys] knew what they were doing, and a lot of them knew it was dangerous, but it was a lot of fun for them. They were largely taking the boosters out of ordnance, and they worked out how to do this quite quickly [by] prying out the actual charge from the ends of mortar [shells], which is like a shotgun cartridge. They were pulling that out and opening it up. They were setting fire to that because it makes a big flash, and sometimes these things will make a bang. Generally what was happening is that they were getting more and more confident and [burning] bigger and bigger piles of this stuff," Sutton said.

Sutton says he and other deminers scouting the area warned the boys to stop and then made arrangements for a clean-up team to come to the area as quickly as possible. However, by the time the crew arrived, just a few hours later, three of the boys already had been killed in an explosion.

According to MAG, there were some 500 deaths and injuries each month from unexploded ordnance in northern Iraq immediately after the three-week war. Today, area hospitals report an average of 20 casualties a month. However, the actual casualty rate is likely to be higher since many deaths are believed to go unreported.

MAG -- which fields 800 deminers in Iraq -- is the largest demining organization to have worked continuously in northern Iraq since the first Gulf War, when the area fell out of Baghdad's control. It is largely funded by grants from European governments and the U.S. State Department and currently has a budget of some $10 million for demining in the north and other parts of the country.

There are also a variety of smaller nonprofit demining teams working in Iraq, as well as some commercial groups under contract to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. Some nations participating in the coalition have sent demining experts as part of their military teams, including Kazakhstan, which contributed 27 peacekeeping troops in August 2003 to help with demining and restoring water supplies.

Demining experts classify Iraq as among the four countries in the world with the most mines and unexploded ordnance on their soil. The other three are Afghanistan, Angola, and Cambodia.