The Iraqi government's failure to grasp the scope of its land mine and bomb problem has derailed efforts to clear what is considered one of the world's most contaminated countries, two United Nations agencies said Wednesday.
A government decision to ban all civilian land-mine clearance because of military fears that the old weapons will wind up in the hands of militants has threatened Iraq's chances of meeting its internationally mandated obligation to clear the country of land mines and unexploded remnants of war by 2018.
"They are in the same league as Afghanistan in terms of saturation," said Kent Paulusson, the United Nations Development Fund's senior mine action adviser for Iraq during a presentation Wednesday. "The government needs to recognize the size of the problem and deal with it."
Iraq's land mine problem is a result of the war with Iran in the 1980's, Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the 2003 invasion, Paulusson said. While the problem has been overshadowed by the internal strife and near civil war that broke out three years ago, the deadly weapons remain buried and scattered across the country and along its borders. The U.N. said they affect the lives of 1.6 million Iraqis.
'People can't live there'
"Some areas are so contaminated that people can't live there," Paulusson said.
The problem areas are spread across the country, and a partial survey published in a report jointly presented in Baghdad by UNDP and UNICEF indicates that so far they have identified 4,000 contaminated hazard areas totaling 670 square miles (1,738 square kilometers).
Although the number of remaining mines is unclear, an Iraqi report submitted to the U.N. last year said that 20 million anti-personnel mines were sown by Iraq's military alone on the borders and the southern oil fields during the various wars.
The two wars against the United States also littered many parts of the southern desert along the borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with cluster bombs, in addition to the mines laid by Saddam Hussein's forces. The U.N. overview cited a report that 50 million cluster sub-munitions were used in Iraq from 1991 to 2006.
The number of victims from land mines and other unexploded remnants of war was also unclear because of a lack of an adequate reporting mechanism in Iraq in recent years.
According to the U.N. report, land mines and unexploded remnants of war have also prevented economic development of some areas, including potential oil fields.
Iraq became a party to the Ottawa mine ban convention last year and agreed to clear all areas containing mines and unexploded bombs by 2018. According to the UNDP and the UNICEF, the country will not meet that deadline in the near future.
"They definitely will not reach the Ottawa deadline," Paulusson said.
Paulusson said that to clear the areas that have already been identified, Iraq needs 19,000 de-miners working for the next 10 years. But it only has 300 for the whole country, excluding the Kurdish north, and they've been banned by the government from operating. Kurdistan's semiautonomous government has been running its own de-mining program since 1993.
The government banned civilian de-miners because of security concerns, as mines and unexploded ordinance are the primary materials for the manufacture of car and roadside bombs, and is relying instead on the military.
The Iraqi environment ministry has pushed for civilian de-miners to be allowed to operate, saying it's the only way to achieve success quickly. The U.N. also thinks that the military does not have the resources for the job and says its engineers are tasked with defusing weapons being used against them.
Iraq claims military can do job
The Iraqi military has said it can do the job. It does not want civilian involvement and claims that private companies have in the past have proven questionable — a veiled reference to private security firms.
"Our ministry has specialized and engineering units that can de-mine all areas," the defense ministry's Lt. Gen. Ahmed Hashim said during the presentation Wednesday.
Hashim added that in the defense ministry's view "de-mining is a weapon that can be used in two directions. The first one is removing mines, but it can also be used in harming citizens." Therefore, he said, the defense ministry feels it should control de-mining operations.
Hashim said the ministry would prove its capability by de-mining the southern desert in September.
Paulusson said part of the difficulty was with the government's failure to understand the size of the challenge and the urgency it requires. He said even if the 300 civilian de-miners were allowed to work it wouldn't be enough.
"It would take 300 people about 600 years," he said.