Recently, our Provincial Reconstruction Team in the northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk took time out to join in the dribbling, penalty kicks, and discussions about playing fair -- and avoiding dangers from landmines and other unexploded munitions -- at the “Spirit of Soccer” Youth Soccer and Mine Awareness Festival.
As Iraq emerges from decades of conflict, it continues to face serious challenges from these hidden hazards. According to surveys, as much as 1,500 square kilometers of the country are believed to contain landmines and other unexploded ordnance. Meanwhile, countless caches of illicit weaponry and ammunition present not only immediate humanitarian risks but also a ready source of explosives for extremist militants seeking to derail the country's progress.
The United States is the world's single largest financial contributor to post-conflict efforts to remove landmines and unexploded munitions around the world, working with dozens of nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners to deliver more than $1.8 billion in aid to more than 80 countries through the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action Program. Since 2003, my office has worked in close partnership with the Iraqi government and U.S. Embassy Baghdad to invest more than $182 million toward humanitarian mine-action and conventional weapons destruction projects that we believe will continue setting the stage for Iraq's economic development and post-conflict recovery, as detailed in our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety.
But survey and clearance operations are only half of the story: U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action also supports survivor assistance programs to help the injured and their families, as well as Mine Risk Education programs like the soccer class aimed at preventing injuries in the first place.
The festival was conceived by Spirit of Soccer, one of our 61 partners in humanitarian mine action. Founded in 1996 by coach Scotty Lee after witnessing first-hand the impact of landmines and unexploded munitions on communities as a volunteer aid worker in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Spirit of Soccer has been dedicated to using soccer skills clinics and tournaments to teach Mine and Unexploded Ordnance Risk Education to more than 14,000 boys and girls in Iraq, as well as thousands more in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, and Kosovo.
Earlier in the year, several Iraqi soccer coaches attended a series of training sessions with experts from the Spirit of Soccer in Amman, Jordan. Returning to Kirkuk, they passed on what they learned to more than 50 more of their fellow coaches -- including 15 female coaches -- as well as others representing every ethnic community from all corners of the province. These classroom sessions stressed the need to build sportsmanship, encourage tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution, and the importance of Mine Risk Education to playing safe.
Iraqi coaches and Spirit of Soccer staff then organized a Youth Soccer and Mine Awareness Festival. More than 100 boys and girls rushed the pitch, where they showed off their soccer skills, learned new moves from the coaches, and competed in short matches against other local teams. They also received important information on what to do if they find a mine or other dangerous weapon in their neighborhood, school yard, or play areas. The newly-trained coaches will continue to manage their teams and educate their players on playing safe for years to come.
After the festival, the young participants will return to their local communities as coaches to organize football tournaments of their own -- as well as to spread the word among their peers about how to recognize and avoid landmines and unexploded munitions. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs has been proud to support this unique NGO's initiative, providing grants worth more than $400,000 in support of Spirit of Soccer's Mine Risk Education programs, and expects to see their success around the world for many years to come.