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Iraq's landmines: a lethal legacy of old wars Open in fullscreen

Ahmad al-Naemi

Iraq's landmines: a lethal legacy of old wars

Removing all the mines in Iraq would require a lot of money [Safeen Hamed/AFP]

Date of publication: 23 March, 2015

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Feature: Iraq has an estimated 25 million land mines, some of which date back decades. The cost of removing them and making the country safe again will be huge.

Death lurks in every corner of Mesopotamia. In recent memory, Iraqis have been at risk of dying from car bombs, rockets and explosive devices.

But there is also another killer that has been lurking for the past few decades. This one stretches from the border regions with Iran in the south and east to the Kurdistan region in the north: fields of land mines that continue to kill Iraqis even today, more than thirty years after the start of the Iraq-Iran war.

Mukhtar al-Majidi is an Iraqi mine expert. Majidi traces Iraq's landmine problem back to the 1940s. Then, it was a limimted problem. But it mushroomed in the late 1960s, he said, with the first Iran-Iraq skirmishes and fighting between the central government and Kurdish separatists in the north.

The Iran-Iraq war

The story of the Iraqis with land mines began back in the 1940s, though the phenomenon was very limited at the time.

The problem became acute with the oputbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. At the time, Majidi said, the eastern border with Iran was laid with large numbers of mines, especially in al-Faw and Basra in south Iraq, and the cities along the border such as Mandali, Badra, and many others. Mines were also laid on the border between Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, during the second Gulf war.

Majidi said "With the start of the Iraq-Iran war, the number of mines laid between the two countries increased. Then in the Gulf War in 1991, there was a significant increase in mines planted. In the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, millions of shells, munitions, and cluster bombers were left behind."

According to some reports, there are more than 25 million mines planted in Iraq's border areas. The figure is considered the highest in the world.

Mahmoud al-Salihi, head of the Iraqi Mine Action Centre, estimated that as much as 1,840 square km of Iraq, spanning 15 out of 18 governorates are "contaminated" with mines.

"The cost of removing each mine is about $350, which means Iraq needs astronomical figures and a long-term plan to fully de-mine its territory."

In addition to the cost, a major obstacle, Salihi said, is the lack of maps showing the location of mines laid under the former regime. Many of the mines were planted haphazardly without any maps.

According to Salihi, 29,000 Iraqis have died because of mines from the end of the 1980s to date. Ninety percent were civilians, the majority children under the age of 14. Meanwhile, more than 70,000 Iraqis have lost limbs because of the explosion of mines and ordinances, which has increased the number of disabled people, Salihi said.

UN reports corroborate these figures, and say that up to 1.6 million Iraqis are at risk from mines, bombs, and munitions in about 4,000 settlements in the whole of Iraq.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed also spoke to geologist Jassem Saleh. He said the Basra governorate had the largest number of mines, followed by Maysan in the south. The eastern border between Iraq and Iran, he added, is considered the most dangerous area in relation to land mines.

In this regard, a report published by the Iraqi Mine and Unexploded Ordnance Clearance Organisation said there are 25 million mines in Iraq, 10 million of which are in the Kurdistan region. In addition, according to the report, there are three million tonnes of unexploded ordnance.

There are 1,682 zones classified as hazardous for containing cluster bombs, 4,446 zones for containing various shells and munitions, and 94 extremely hazardous zones containing cluster bombs and depleted uranium shells used by the US army in the Gulf war. These are mostly located in the Rumaila fields in southern Iraq.

The dead and the disabled

There are 25 million mines in Iraq, 10 million in the Kurdistan region and three million tons of unexploded ordnance.

Mamdouh Abdul-Samad, member of the Iraqi Association of the Disabled, told al-Araby there are more than 70,000 people whose disabilities were caused by mines and ordinances, including 10,000 in Basra alone. Their ages range between 14 and 35 years, and the majority of the victims had their legs amputated, according to Abdul-Samad.

In the same context, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that 6,000 citizens were killed, and 8,000 were injured as a result of land mines since 1991. The Kurdistan region is one of the most land mine contaminated region after Basra and Maysan.

Mine and explosive experts advise citizens to stay away from border areas as much as possible, follow instructions and guidelines issued by the authorities concerned, read signs posted near minefields, and refrain from tampering with suspicious objects and report them to the authorities immediately.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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