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Another War, another round of landmines?

by Eugene J. Carroll and Rachel Stohl

This op-ed first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 18, 2003.

While UN inspectors are searching for dangerous weapons hidden in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, they must also be wary of American weapons already lurking there.

These are not the nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons that President Bush charges Iraq is concealing, but they're equally indis- criminate and dangerous. Antipersonnel land mines emplaced by the US during the Gulf War in 1991, as well as those from the Iran-Iraq war, now continue to kill or maim up to 30 Iraqis each month.

Because land mines are such indiscriminate tools of war - thousands of innocent civilians worldwide are killed each year - the majority of nations in the world have signed the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. The treaty prohibits the use, trade, production, or stockpiling of antipersonnel land mines in conflicts anywhere. The US, however, has chosen not to sign this convention.

Now, with war impending, the US has an important policy decision to make: Will it use land mines in its military operations again?

It is ironic that any US operation in Iraq will have to contend with the snares of its own land mines - both those already in the ground and any new ones emplaced. But beyond the military pros and cons of using land mines, the US must also consider their humanitarian impact.

Today, Iraq already has an estimated 600,000 to 1 million internally displaced people. A US attack and an increased presence of land mines will only make this growing population more vulnerable and cause humanitarian aid to be more difficult. With new land mines in place, the present rate of land-mine casualties can only grow.

Internationally, there are concerns over whether the US will ask other countries to violate the terms of the Mine Ban Treaty. All members of NATO, except the US and Turkey, have joined the treaty. Additionally, Qatar, which will serve as headquarters for future US military action in Iraq, is a party to the Mine Ban Treaty. Allowing the US to transfer mines across its borders for use in Iraq would put Qatar in direct violation of the treaty.

During the Gulf War, US war-fighting doctrine listed four types and uses for land mines:

  • Protective minefieldsto add temporary strength to weapons positions, or other obstacles.
  • Tactical minefields emplaced as part of an overall obstacle plan to stop, delay, and disrupt enemy attacks; reduce enemy mobility, channel enemy formations, block enemy penetrations, and protect friendly flanks.
  • Point minefields emplaced in friendly or uncontested areas and intended to disorganize enemy forces or block an enemy counterattack.
  • Interdiction minefields emplaced in enemy-held areas to disrupt lines of communication.

However, even with clear-cut rationales for using land mines, some US commanders were fearful that their own mines would endanger friendly forces and decrease battlefield mobility. In fact, as in all previous wars, US troops were not immune to the dangers of land mines in the Gulf War. Of the 1,364 US casualties in the Gulf War, 81 - 6 percent - were caused by land mines.

Moreover, the military benefit of land-mine usage in the Gulf War is unclear. According to a September 2002 General Accounting Office report, there was no evidence of enemy casualties or damage to enemy equipment as result of land mines laid during the Gulf War.

The Bush administration has been reviewing the issue but hasn't yet announced its own land-mine policies, including whether to continue the Clinton administration decision to move toward joining the Mine Ban Treaty by 2006.

Recent reports of US land mines transferred to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Diego Garcia, and elsewhere in the region suggest that the US is indeed planning to use the weapons in Iraq.

Before deciding to do so, however, military leaders and the Bush administration must examine the painful lessons learned from the military and humanitarian consequences of land mine use in Desert Storm, not to mention the diplomatic implications of using the weapons today when most of the world has banned their use.

If the administration were to thoughtfully consider whether all of the military, humanitarian, and international political costs are really worth it, it would decide to prohibit land-mine use in Iraq and move toward banning this outmoded weapon altogether.