The Forgotten Killing Fields of Iraq
Cluster bombs, mines, ISIS IEDs: CJ Werleman reports on the ongoing casualties of 40 years of lethal ordnance littering the fields of Iraq.
The war in Vietnam ended 43 years ago but strategic military choices made on both sides of the conflict continue to harm and kill the inhabitants of that country today, with more than 40,000 Vietnamese killed and 60,000 injured by unexploded ordinance since the fighting ceased in 1975.
After the final shots had been fired in a war that spanned more than a decade, it was estimated that 800,000 tons of unexploded ordinance, including landmines, cluster bombs, missiles and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) remained in the country.
When I visited Quang Tri province in 2001, located a one hour bus ride from the city of Hue on the north central coast, where as much as three-quarters of the land is contaminated by landmines and cluster bombs, locals told me how they warn their children against picking up any metallic object they do not recognize, or straying from well-worn paths.
Today, the affects of the war are still being felt and realized by those who were born decades after the fighting had ceased and peace had been attained. In Laos, unexploded ordinance kills 300 people annually, according to the International Red Cross.
Another 40 Years of War
So what about Iraq then, a country that has been in a semi-permanent state of war since its invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980? How many current and future generations of Iraqis will be maimed and killed by unexploded ordinance, or more specifically how many Iraqi children will be killed by an ISIS planted IED, US fired cluster bomb, or Iraqi government laid landmine decades after the insurgent group or the US occupation becomes a mere historical bookmark?
Financial contributions toward efforts to remove land mines plunged by more than 25% in 2017 undermining promises made by the international community to complete mine clearance by 2025.
Consider that an estimated 27 million landmines were laid along the Iran-Iraq border by both the governments in Baghdad and Tehran during the 1980s, which have killed more than 10,000 on the Iranian side of the border alone since the conflict ended in 1988, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.
Consider also that the US and its allies laid more than 1 million landmines along the Iraq-Kuwait border and around the Iraq city of Basra during the Persian Gulf War; while the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein laid an unknown but huge quantity of landmines around Kuwaiti oil fields and elsewhere to slow efforts by the US-Saudi coalition to extinguish fires and move towards Baghdad.
Now also consider that as of 2013, the year before ISIS captured Mosul, there had been more than 30,000 casualties of landmines in Iraq, alongside another 3,019 casualties from cluster munitions.
The central challenge is a lack of resources. There are simply not enough teams of de-miners and qualified explosive ordnance disposal techniciansBrian Castner, Amnesty International
The vicious and reckless use of landmines and IEDs by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq during the years 2014-18, however, has multiplied the threat unexploded ordinance poses Iraqi civilians in a way most are only just now coming to terms with.
Not only do today’s IEDs have 10 to 100 times more explosive power than a landmine, but also ISIS designed them to inflict the greatest amount of carnage as possible.
Whereas the strategic rationale for landmine use in conventional warfare was previously built on the notion of injuring, rather than killing enemy combatants, the logic being one injured soldier requires another 3 to attend to his care, terrorist groups, such as ISIS, have designed IEDs to inflict maximum carnage on both its enemies and civilians.
Then there are cluster bombs, a favoured weapon of the United States in Iraq, which are considered the most dangerous kind of unexploded ordinance because they scatter over a large area and are easily detonated.
US dropped cluster sub-munitions caused more US troop casualties than any single Iraqi weapon system during Operation Desert Storm.
In fact, US dropped cluster sub-munitions caused more US troop casualties than any single Iraqi weapon system during Operation Desert Storm, according to a 2013 letter cosigned by both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, while the US 3rd Infantry Division described cluster munitions that had been dropped by the US in 1990 as “battlefield losers” because “US forces [during the 2003 Iraq invasion] were often forced to advance through areas contaminated with unexploded sub-munitions.”
The Promise – Broken
When I spoke with Brian Castner, a senior crisis advisor and landmine expert with Amnesty International, he told me, “Iraq faces an enormous challenge clearing unexploded ordnance and IEDs from what is now decades of conflict. Amnesty has documented that there are still areas in western Mosul and Sinjar where families are displaced, because there are too many dangerous IEDs in homes and neighborhoods for them to return.
The central challenge is a lack of resources. There are simply not enough teams of de-miners and qualified explosive ordnance disposal technicians to clear so enormous an area. So far, the amount of resources devoted by the international community is not remotely commensurate with the size of the problem.”
Terrorist groups, such as ISIS, have designed IEDs to inflict maximum carnage on both its enemies and civilians.
To that end, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines have also said that financial contributions toward efforts to remove land mines plunged by more than 25% in 2017, which represents the third consecutive annual decline in funding, and undermines promises made by the international community to complete mine clearance by 2025.
The enormous challenge facing Iraq for the next generation or few in regards to unexploded ordinance should instigate renewed efforts by the international community to “outlaw the use of cluster bombs and landmines, and to stop using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas,” Alexander Hiniker, a disarmament expert, told me.
Until we do something to limit or end the use of these munitions, civilians will continue to suffer grotesque injuries and death years after our wars of choice have come to an end.
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