In Iraq’s vast southern desert, red sandbags stretch along roadsides to warn of the danger from Saddam-era landmines that litter the prized Rumaila oilfield. White ones signal areas safe to walk or drive.
Now recovering from decades of conflict, Iraq may have 25 million landmines and millions of other unexploded bombs that are slowing development of some of the world’s largest fields and one of Iraq’s key cities, the southern oil hub Basra.
“Landmines and (unexploded) war remnants are the silent enemy,” said Ali al-Maliki, head of the municipal security committee in Basra, where leftover ordnance is slowing the construction of bridges, homes and commercial districts.
The red- and white-painted sandbags seem a fragile safety barrier for the thousands of workers now striving to ramp up production from 17-billion-barrel supergiant Rumaila and the other massive fields surrounding Basra.
There was no protection for six de-miners killed recently when a pile of recovered mines and old ordnance exploded.
“The demining workers, along with Iraqi army officers, ignited a fuse to detonate a landmine pile close to Rumaila North, but nothing happened. When the team went back to check, the pile exploded,” said a Basra oil police investigator.
The threat of landmines extends far beyond the small army of workers now trying to clear the southern oilfields. The United Nations Development Programme says mines caused 14,000 casualties in Iraq between 1991 and 2007. More than half died from their wounds.
Mines by the millions
The environment ministry estimates that 25 million landmines are scattered around Iraq, many along the border with Iran, a legacy of the 1980-88 war between neighbors that killed a million people. UNICEF puts the number of anti-personnel mines around 20 million, along with 50 million cluster bombs.
Mines can block developers from sinking new wells in promising areas and building pipelines and other infrastructure needed to fulfill Iraq’s ambitious goal of ramping up capacity to 12 million barrels per day by 2017, a figure that would rival top global producer Saudi Arabia.
Iraq’s current production is 2.9 million bpd.
Many of the mines are deeply buried in the sand after so many years in place, and removal efforts have delayed plans to sink wells, notably at 12.9-billion-barrel supergiant West Qurna Phase Two, being developed by Russia’s LUKOIL and Norway’s Statoil, said a report by the state-run South Oil Company.
“Landmines are buried to around three meters, and that makes it difficult to spot them,” the report said. “Landmines and unexploded ordnance have cause a delay in developing some fields and the preparation of drilling pads, as at West Qurna 2 and other border fields like Fakka and Badra.”
The international companies investing billions of dollars in Iraq’s lucrative fields have hired demining companies to clear them, and under their service contracts with Baghdad, Iraq must repay firms for the considerable cost.
Arab Gulf Co. was hired to demine Rumaila, West Qurna, Zubair and Badra. Some of its workers are Saddam-era army officers with demining experience.
Most of the landmines around oil production facilities in the south were planted by Saddam’s army in the 1980s to prevent Iranian attacks on key oil infrastructure.
“Until now we have managed to defuse around 8,900 landmines and unexploded ordnance from Rumaila North and South ... we have cleared around 45 million square meter of Rumaila,” said Nawaf Abdulla, head of operations at Arab Gulf. “Our contract with BP covers 125 million square meters.”
“Decades have passed and lifting landmines becomes nearly impossible. We have to detonate mines at the location as a last resort,” he said.
Dream of bridges, malls and homes
Under its economic development plan, Iraq aims to attract $86 billion in investment by 2014 as it tries to rebuild more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Authorities in Basra, one of Iraq’s largest cities and the hub of oil production and exports, say mines are hampering billions of dollars worth of development projects.
“We have ambitious plans to revive the eastern part of the city, building new bridges, residential complexes and markets, but landmines from the Iraq-Iran war are discouraging foreign investors from coming here,” said Haider Ali, the Basra investment office spokesman.
Located about 420 km (260 miles) south of Baghdad, Basra has been relatively peaceful in recent years while many areas battle a stubborn Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias responsible for scores of bombings and other attacks each month.
But the city saw fierce fighting in 2008 when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi army to crush Shiite militias and criminal gangs. Now Basra is focused on reconstruction.
In the eastern Basra district of Shatt al-Arab, Mayor Haider al-Ibadi has been trying to lure investors to build housing and entertainment areas.
“Investors are not ready to risk billions of dollars in a landmine area,” said Ibadi. “If we could overcome this issue, billions in investments could be secured for this area.”