Decontaminating mine-infested Iraq — a war far from over
Baghdad - Ahmad al-Kabissi was helping displaced residents of his native Anbar province, west of Baghdad, to return home after liberation from the Islamic State (ISIS) when he lost his two legs in a landmine explosion. He considers himself lucky. Three of his colleagues were killed on the spot.
Kabissi, 27, was part of a demining team operating in Ramadi after undergoing one month of training. “We were asked to dismantle bombs in one of the many booby-trapped houses left by ISIS in the city. One of us must have stepped on an explosive device. The explosion cut through us. They died. I survived,” Kabissi said.
“I liked the idea of removing the explosives scattered all over the place and helping families recover their homes after they have been cleared.”
Kabissi, who now uses a wheelchair, is waiting for government support to provide him with prostheses to be able to walk again. “After all these sacrifices, I was left without care or compensation to continue in my life, which I fear I will spend on a wheelchair,” he said.
With an estimated 26 million landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) scattered across the country, Iraq is among the most severely contaminated countries in the world due to decades of conflict. While most of the landmines date from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, more accumulated during the 1990-91 conflict and the 2003 US-led coalition invasion of Iraq. ISIS and others continue to add to the mine count today.
Official Iraqi reports state that one in every five Iraqis is at risk of being injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance.
In Anbar, there is no approximate number of the unexploded devices being cleared by international and local demining organisations, provincial council member Rajee’ Barakat said. “A large amount of ordnance has been removed but the process of clearing explosive remnants of wars takes a very long time. It is even worse here in view of the huge number of bombs that were planted by ISIS all over the place,” he said.
Demining efforts by international organisations are concentrated on clearing main intersections and streets, government buildings and public facilities, Barakat said, adding that the “sensitive task of removing UXO from private houses and agricultural fields is handled by explosive experts in the army and the federal police.”
The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has cleared nearly 400 “priority” sites in Falluja and Ramadi since 2015, disabling more than 2,600 explosives in areas recaptured from ISIS. The cost of clearing Iraq, initially estimated at $50 million, has doubled because of the battle of Mosul.
UNMAS Programme Management Officer Paul Heslop said in a statement the “large contamination of Mosul” required additional demining costs of $50 million. He said the removal of explosive devices from buildings was more dangerous than clearing minefields and necessitated more technical expertise and sophisticated equipment. “Once the area is completely liberated (from ISIS) we will be able to have a better assessment of the extent of contamination,” he said.
Khaled Rashed, general director of the Directorate of Mine Action in Iraq, acknowledged the explosive hazard problem in Iraq is complex, unprecedented and required a national and international response.
“Iraq is among countries of the world that have been contaminated for several decades,” he said. “The destruction of explosives remaining from the Iraq-Iran war in the ‘80s of the last century is not completed. The Gulf war (1990-91), in which all types of weapons were used, further complicated the issue also causing environmental hazards and damage to agriculture.”
During the ISIS occupation, many booby traps, as well as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), were planted. Around Mosul, since operations began in October 2016, nearly 1,700 people have been killed or wounded by explosive hazards, UNMAS said.
There are no official counts of victims of UXO in Iraq but unofficial figures estimate more than 14,000 people have been killed or wounded by landmines since 1991, most of them civilians.
Rashed acknowledged a lack of funds had delayed demining work. “The directorate’s limited (financial) capacity is impeding the work which requires huge funding and strong international support,” he said.
Poor funding has restricted assistance to mine victims such as Kabissi, Barakat said. “The central government is not responding to our demands to allocate monthly salaries to those who suffered impairment,” he said. “Also, the Ministry of Health has turned a blind eye to our request for treatment and prostheses for the war disabled.”
In 2007, Iraq signed the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines. Under the convention, Iraq committed to free the country of landmines by 2018, an impossible task.
The problem of terrorism might end one day in Iraq but it will take decades of action and stronger advocacy to get rid of the legacy of mines and explosive remnants of wars.