Wearing special protective suits and equipped with detection tools, this team is combing through a field in search of mines and unexploded ordnances in the Shatt-al-Arab district, in Iraq’s southern city of Basra.
Situated some 17 kilometers from the Iranian border, this area was once renowned for its date palm orchards. Now, it's a vast desert littered with thousands of mines and unexploded ordnances, left over mainly from the eight-year Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), as well as the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War.
Decades of war have left Iraq with one of the worst mine problems in the world, according to UNICEF, with around 20 million anti-personnel mines and more than 50 million cluster bombs believed to be left over in border areas and southern oilfields. Iraq’s Environment Ministry says there are 25 million landmines scattered around the country, many along the border with Iran, a legacy of the war between neighbors that killed a million people.
In a plan to regenerate the areas, teams of the Iraqi Mine and Unexploded Ordnance Clearance Organization (IMCO), a non-governmental organization, have embarked on an ambitious plan to clear stretches of land along the course of a major irrigation canal including areas which have seen fierce fighting like the Jasim River and Shlamcha districts.
IMCO is funded by the U.S. State Department and run mainly by Iraqi staff. It has worked on clearing land in major projects in Basra such as the South Oil Company, strategic reservoirs in the al-Faw peninsula and strategic oil pipelines.
The head of IMCO’s operations in Basra, Atheer Habeeb, said the project will be important in helping to deliver drinking water and providing thousands of new job opportunities.
“This is one of the vital projects because it aims at delivering drinking water from Tiban area to al-Faw district and other areas along the 126-kilometre long canal. It will also provide job opportunities to 2,000-3,000 people and revive arable lands on the shoulder of the canal,” said Habeeb.
According to the United Nations Development Program, mines caused around 14,000 casualties in Iraq between 1991 and 2007, with more than half dying from their wounds. But, the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF) estimated that around 8,000 people, including 2,000 children, were killed or wounded by the unexploded cluster bombs between 2005 and 2010.
Habeeb said the length of the 'contaminated' area is around 10-11 kilometers with a width of around 200 meters with surveillance revealing that this area contains around seven minefields. Teams of the organization have cleared a total of just over one million square meters of land, with up to 8,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines jointly removed by IMCO and the Ministry of Defense, said Habeeb.
Habeeb said most of the minefields have been planted many times over the years - with many of them contain both Iraqi and Iranian mines- making it one of the most complicated and dense minefields to clear.
“We discovered around 5,000 unexploded ordnances during the first and the second stages of the work. They range between mines, small shells, cluster bombs and heavy caliber weapons such as (shells of) the Iranian 175 mm artillery. We also found various remains, which indicate that these areas, which are inside Iraq's territories, were scenes of battle,” said Habeeb.
Among the challenges facing the organization in clearing the area are also dealing with rural people who walk into fields, collect mines to sell for scrap metal, an important source of income for their families.
“We deal with the most dangerous materials, namely mines and unexploded ordnances left over from war. Sometimes our expertise helps us overcome some challenges. But we also face another kind of challenge posed by people who mess with minefields. Some of them are using mines for other purposes while others enjoy messing with them (mines) without having any idea of the dangers they pose. We sometimes come and find them inside minefields,” explained IMCO head of Survey and Surveillance Operations, Aladdin Rodhan.
“Definitely they've had a negative impact on the technical side of our work. For example, when we want to work on a marked minefield we find out that marks have been removed and the features of the field have been changed and we find that many things have been altered, from the way that we normally work," said Rodhan.
Basra was the scene of sustained conflict during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Gulf War in 1991 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Iraq ratified the1997 Mine Ban Treaty in August 2007. Since then, the Iraqi government has been working to try to meet its treaty obligations, including destroying mine stockpiles by 2011 and clearing all fields by 2017. In line with its obligations under the treaty, the Iraqi government is supposed to clear all minefields by February 2018.
But, still much work needs to be done with some fields swept, others are still going through the painstaking process, but with many others yet to be started.