In-depth: Laying Landmines to Rest? Humanitarian Mine Action
IRAQ: Insecurity adds to huge southern demining task
Increased insecurity in Iraq is severely limiting humanitarian assistance including mine clearance
BASRA, 1 November 2004 (IRIN) - Work on clearing mines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) in southern Iraq is continuing at a slow pace due to insecurity, with international NGOs and other partners of the Regional Mine Action Centre (RMAC) in the city of Basra just getting back to work after eight months of delays, a spokesman from RMAC told IRIN.
"Our plan is to develop a new training/operations centre based outside Basra," the spokesman said. The NGO has been targeted twice by explosive devices which killed a local aid worker and left another two badly injured.
"We are closing down physically in Basra," he added. A total of 9,574 items including UXOs and mines were recovered for demolition and a total of 9,660 items have already been destroyed this year.
"We are concerned with mainly three types of clearance; mines, unexploded ordnance and large quantities of unused ammunition from Iraqi stocks after the last war. But the border with Iran in the central and southern regions is one of the heavily mined [areas] from the Iraq-Iran war," the RMAC official said.
He added that the UXOs are common throughout the whole region, most of them from the Gulf war in 1991 and some from the recent conflict to oust Saddam Hussein early last year. "We have a number of programmes from the US Department of Defense to either eradicate those UXOs or decide what to do about them in the future," he added.
The RMAC was established in November 2003 to advise and train local Iraqis to clear mines and UXOs. According to the RMAC official, it was very difficult to estimate the number of mines and UXOs remaining on the ground in southern Iraq. "I can't say there is x thousand numbers of UXOs, but I can say there are a lot and they are widespread. Most of them are still in their original place and there are a lot of stocks people haven't found yet.”
German Shepherd 'Larry' being trained to detect mines in the northern Iraqi governorate of Arbil.
Very little is known about the impact of uncleared mines and UXOs on local communities, he explained. In one of the few surveys conducted on the problem in the country, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2001 identified cluster bombs and other UXOs as the main threat to communities living in southern Iraq. The Iraq Landmine Impact Survey (ILIS), another partner with RMAC, organised by the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation and funded by the US State Department, began a socio-economic impact survey in May 2004 on the whole country to gather information on the distribution of mines and UXOs and their impact on people.
An aid worker from ILIS told IRIN that the programme started activities in Basra in August. "Right now, we are in the process of visiting communities [mainly villages and small towns] in Basra. It is difficult to fully document the extent of the contamination in these districts because large swaths of the land are almost completely abandoned," he explained.
RMAC is using the information from the survey to establish priorities to assist the most highly affected and engaged communities identified by the survey. The survey team is using different sources such as the Iraqi Red Crescent (IRC), the statistics directory, and the Basra governorate office in order to gather data and develop knowledge of contaminated villages.
"We ask officials in the villages about 170 questions to cover locations and other details about land mines or UXOs found. If there are any, we take digital pictures and then we use GPS [Global Positioning System] instruments to record the exact position [of the mines] so that teams can come later to destroy it or make it safe," the ILIS worker said.
According to the survey team, the most heavily affected community identified by the survey so far is the village of Jurf Al-Malh, close to Shat Al-arab waterway near the Iranian border. A local leader in the village told IRIN that the area was on the front line of the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.
"People here are poor and they live on farming. They have to go to the fields because it is the only work they have but there are many incidents where people were killed or lost their legs because of the landmines," the Sheikh said.
In addition, there are reports that some people are digging for mines so they can sell them to earn a living, a highly dangerous job. A 21-year-old shepherd died a few weeks ago just days before the survey team arrived, the Sheikh said, adding that over the last year, around 120 people were either killed or injured by anti-personnel or anti-tank mines.
Mines, unexploded ordnance and arms caches litter Iraq presenting demining groups with huge challenges if they are to protect civilians.
Credit: MAG/Sean Sutton
According to the survey team, the majority of the mined areas are in open countryside. Other efforts to clear the area include those of the Iraqi National Guard (ING), who have carried out a number of ordnance disposal operations after being trained by the British army.
"Our battalion was formed nine months ago by the British army. We mainly work in Basra and through to the border with Iran to clear UXOs primarily in built up areas," Captain Firas Al-Tamimi, an ING spokesman, told IRIN.
There are around 750,000 mt of UXOs in and around Basra, mainly unused ammunition, bombs, rockets and mortars discarded by fleeing Iraqi troops last year. So far, around 400 mt have been cleared, according to Al-Tamimi.
British experts estimated that the work could be done in 60 years, he added. But they too are finding it tough due to a lack of maps and detectors, the captain said.
Right now, the ING battalion is working to clear an area of 110 km on the waterside in Al-Fao region south of Basra in order to clear the site for a project to build a new port.