In-depth: Laying Landmines to Rest? Humanitarian Mine Action

IRAQ: Demining spreading south in post-Saddam era

Photo: IRIN
UXOs in Basra
NAIROBI, 1 November 2004 (IRIN) - Arbil, For anybody familiar with Iraqi Kurdistan, the sight of a demining team at work seems as much part of the landscape as the stunted oaks scattered across the mountainsides. Arguably the most contaminated part of a country that vies with Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia for the dubious title of the world's most heavily mined, there have been deminers here since 1992.

To all appearances, their work carries on today unchanged. But appearances here are deceptive: since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring, Iraq's mine action programme has undergone radical change.

From 1996 to 2003 this was a UN-run project, financed with money from the Oil-for-Food Programme. Now funding comes almost entirely from the US State Department. International advisers work with Iraqis at the fledgling National Mine Action Authority (NMAA) to build up a locally-run administration.

Previously confined to the Kurdish-controlled north, mine action now touches the whole country. The Baghdad-based NMAA is collaborating with sub-offices in the southern city of Basra and the northern city of Arbil to build up a set of national, not regional, priorities.

Few doubt that the restructuring has brought greater efficiency. But for the nine national and international demining organisations that have been working in the north since before last year's war, there have been growing pains.

Infinitely more experienced than their colleagues in central and southern Iraq, many Kurdish deminers have difficulty understanding why their programme should be subordinated to a central office in Baghdad. Others complain of a lack of clarity in the new funding process. And the expansion of mine action throughout Iraq has also required the transfer of all data to a new information system capable of prioritising tasks on a national level.

But it's on the ground that mine action has changed the most in the last 18 months. Confined to a narrow strip of the north between 1991 and 2003, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan had learned to live with the minefields left by decades of war and oppression.

Within those 12 years, demining, increased awareness and a modicum of stability had reduced annual mine-related deaths in northern Iraq from 1,685 to just 172. By increasing freedom of movement following Saddam's fall, liberation brought a return to carnage: 1,057 died in 2003. As thousands of families - mainly Kurds - began to return south to places they had been evicted from by the former Iraqi regime, demining organisations went with them, leaving many operations in Iraqi Kurdish areas pending.

Their first task was to help disarm the vast weapons dumps left by the retreating Iraqi army in cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul, stockpiles that last April were injuring and killing up to 20 people a day in Kirkuk alone.

Unexploded ordnance (UXOs) continue to kill people in northern Iraq. In October 2004, four children in Fayda, a town just south of the northeastern city of Dahuk, died when an unexploded BLU 97 cluster bomblet dropped last spring by the US airforce blew up in their hands.

With the biggest of the ammunition dumps neutralised, though, work this year has concentrated on and around the Green Line, the unofficial frontier that after the 1991 Gulf War divided autonomous Kurdish areas from Baghdad-administered Iraq.

Stretching from Kalar in the south as far as the Syrian border, the Green Line was a no-go area, a militarised zone set up to stop Iraqi Kurdish militiamen and smugglers coming south, and Arab Iraqis fleeing to the north.

Just how heavily mined parts of it were is evident if you visit Qadir Karam, perched in hill country 20 miles east of Kirkuk. Once a town of over 1,000 families built around the shrine of a Kurdish Sufi saint, Qadir Karam was razed in 1987. The Iraqi army left only the imposing mosque standing, converted into an ammunition dump.

Unaffected by the political controversies that are slowing the return of evicted families to Kirkuk, Qadir Karam is quickly returning to life. Dozens of families are hard at work building walls on the foundations of their old houses. The Kurdish authorities provide them with cash and cement, an international NGO with water cisterns. The town even has a new mayor.

But the most crucial job here falls to Mine Action Group (MAG), a British NGO based in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1992. About 300,000 square metres of land in and around Qadir Karam, MAG officials estimate, is mined.

Mine victims in Basra
Credit: IRIN
Since work began in earnest here this February, MAG teams have removed over 2,500 mines and UXOs, plus the 1,076 anti-personnel mines they found inside the mosque. Around 800,000 sq m of land have been visually checked for contamination.

Further north, it's the same story. At Muzaffer, just five miles away, two more MAG teams pick their way through huge barrier minefields laid parallel to the Kirkuk-Sulaymaniyah highway. Clearance work is winding up in Karahenjir, another partially destroyed town on the main road itself.

"Before the war, MAG only had one international [staffer] still in Iraq", MAG's technical operations manager Mark Buswell told IRIN in Arbil. "Now we have 10. It's been action stations since last March."

Working for the largest and the oldest demining organisation in Iraq (MAG pre-dated UNOPs by four years), MAG's international staff attribute the rapidity of their work to two things: their experience and their Britishness.

"Working out the lay of minefields here is made easier by the fact that Iraqi soldiers had a British-style training", MAG's Sulaymaniyah advisor, Mark Manning, told IRIN in Qadir Karam. "The rows are similar, and the patterns. It's not like in Angola, where the people putting down mines were basically kids who had been given a gun."

To illustrate his point, he strode off down a path cut through the middle of the Muzaffer minefield. Barbed wire marks the beginning, then a row of fragmentation mines, trip flares, and a double row of blast mines.

The regularity of Iraqi minefields is far from absolute. In mountainous regions, mines can slip downhill, or be dislodged by snow and rain. By far the best source of information for mine teams pin-pointing the exact positions of minefields, shepherds also have a tendency to tamper with rows to create safe passages for their flocks.

But the military logic behind many of Iraq's contaminated areas is the main reason why MAG teams often feel able to combine the painstaking process of manual search with visual reduction of ground.

"Untouched, a professionally laid minefield is a bit like a jigsaw without the picture on the box", Manning explained. "You work hard cutting paths through a minefield, you work out what mines are where, and what the patterns are, and as long as there is no evidence of tampering, you can be pretty much certain which parts of the ground are untouched."

In such circumstances, a mine action team downs metal detectors, forms a line, and walks over the ground to double-check it is safe.

Manning pointed to the Dara Khurma minefield, just outside Qadir Karam, 250 metres wide and over 100 metres deep. "Checking every inch with metal detectors would take you a year", he said. "That's time you could spend opening up a minefield in the middle of a destroyed village somewhere else."

A part of international mine action standards, area reduction, as this technique is called, was used neither by UNOPS nor by other de-mining organisations currently working in Iraqi Kurdistan. MAG employees put that down to a lack of confidence. In Arbil, IKMAC's Emmanuel Deisser sees it as the natural result of a national mine action programme still working out its own standards.

Until NMAA and IKMAC create national standards, he said, "there are few grounds for justifying one set of standards over another". What worries him far more than disagreements over de-mining technique is the question of future funding for the Iraqi programme. "US financial commitment in mine action forecasts for 2005 are minimal and possibly for the centre and south sectors only," he said.

"The future of mine action in Iraq cannot be the responsibility of the Iraqi authorities alone, and the US government and the UN will not be enough to provide a solution on their own for 2005", he argued. "Active participation from other parties, such as the World Bank and the European Union [EU], is the only way forward."
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A special thanks to the Mines Advisory Group and Sean Sutton for generous use of their excellent photos used extensively in this report.
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