Holding the Government Accountable

Landmines and UXO Endanger Iraqi Population

by Rachel Stohl

Iraq’s population has suffered immensely from decades of war. Iraqi civilians feel not only the effects of years of sanctions, malnutrition, and disease, but are plagued by hidden, deadly killers throughout the country: landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). These landmines and UXO date from the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War, and years of internal conflict.

Iraq is known to have the capacity to produce anti-personnel landmines, but the level of production and the status of mine exports are unknown. However, experts believe Iraq has a significant stockpile of landmines in the country, although due to a lack of information available the condition and locations of these stockpiles are unknown. Mine awareness programs in Iraq exist on a very limited basis and the status of mine clearance is unknown. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) reports that Iraq refused to grant visas to workers hired to address mine clearance projects in northern Iraq in 2001.

No area of Iraq is immune to the dangers of landmines. Experts believe that Iraq has significant mine problems in the northern region, southern region, and along the border with Iran. Iraqi citizens are being killed and injured in Iraq throughout the country. The number of landmine casualties in Iraq is unclear, but at least 21 people were killed by mines and UXO in 2001. The UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) has reported landmine casualties in southern Iraq, including the deaths of three children. Survivor assistance programs are offered through the government and NGOs. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been instrumental in providing support to prosthetic/orthotic centers throughout Iraq.

Internationally, Iraq has done little to address the landmine problem in its country and around the world. It is not a state party to the Ottawa Mine-Ban Treaty, has not attended international meetings on landmines in the last two years, is not a state party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, and has only minimally cooperated with outside agencies and organizations to address the landmine situation within its borders.

The autonomous northern region of Iraq has addressed the landmine situation in greater depth than the rest of the country. In September 2002, the two main Kurdish factions in Northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), pledged not to use anti-personnel landmines.

Beyond avoiding future use of mines in northern Iraq, the region has also begun to address the impact of the thousands of mines already in the territory. Mine impact surveys have been completed in northern Iraq by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and 2,241 minefields and 760 mined villages have been identified in northern Iraq. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) manages the northern Iraq Mine Action Program, which has initiated mine clearance, mine risk and awareness programs. MAG coordinates the mine clearance programs and in the first six months of 2002 has reportedly cleared 140,458 square meters of land (adding to the 515,616 square meters cleared in 2001). MAG destroyed 2,548 mines and 921 UXO in 2001. Thus far in 2002, MAG has destroyed 699 mines and 194 UXO.

Although many important strides have been made, northern Iraq continues to face mine casualties. According to a PUK official, 2,500 people have died and 3,200 have been injured in northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. In 2001, casualties from UXO and landmines were approximately 30 per month. So far in 2002, the monthly casualty levels are believed to be decreasing, and are down to 27 per month. Survivor assistance to northern Iraq is also well established as prosthetics and rehabilitation centers are provided through the UNOPS victim assistance program and through the generosity of European non-governmental organizations, including the Norwegian Red Cross and Handicap International Belgium.

Any U.S. operation in Iraq will have to contend with landmines, both those already in the ground and any new mines that are laid. Moreover, from an operational standpoint, the United States will have to determine if landmines will be used as part of the military operations in Iraq, since the last time the United States used landmines was against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Even without the danger of new mines, however, Iraq remains a country fraught with peril due to landmines and UXO from decades of war. This threat will exist for many years to come.