Jonathan Cebra serves as Public Diplomacy Officer for the Regional Reconstruction Team in Erbil, Iraq.
Last week, my boss was one of the few American diplomats in Iraq asked to set off an explosion. We were working with a group called the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) – which as the name suggests is involved in de-mining operations in a number of countries. Here in Iraq, MAG’s activities also include disposing of small arms and light munitions. MAG’s operations in the Sulaimaniyah area (where the demolition took place) are funded by the Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. You can read MAG’s description here.
Unfortunately there are a lot of abandoned munitions all around the country which creates a variety of problems: munitions can explode accidentally; abandoned munitions are also a source of explosive materials that can be used to make IEDs. The weapons and munitions that we destroyed came from a junk yard south of the city of Sulaimaniyah. The junk yard included non-military scrap metal along with an old tank several pieces of artillery, mortar rounds, and tank ammunition. The junk yard was next to a school, neighborhood children had been passing through on their way to and from school until a member of the community reported the site to MAG. Apparently, one of the curious children had taken a mortar round home and put it in a fire to see what would happen – there weren’t any serious injuries, but it did explode. The experts also showed us one mortar shell which had been unscrewed to remove the explosives and another which had had copper portions of the casing removed. Copper has good resale value, but is it worth that risk?
After touring the site where the munitions were being collected – including anything found within the last couple days, we went up a bit into the mountains to the demolition site. At the demolition site, MAG had buried 1.7 tons of munitions recovered during the previous two weeks in a small valley surrounded by hills on all sides in order to minimize any peripheral damage that the blast might cause.
The folks at MAG know much more about safely destroying weapons than we diplomats do, but our value added was in raising awareness of MAG’s activities within the community. As the MAG country director explained, most minefields in Iraq are marked and people know where they are, but weapons caches are scattered around the country. In some cases they may have been deliberately hidden, in others, like this site, simply abandoned. Either way, MAG relies heavily on the local community to alert them to the existence of such sites. Community liaison is an important element of their work, and MAG has been running a public information campaign to encourage people to contact them; by bringing in television cameras and newspaper reporters we helped MAG to publicize their activities and encourage citizens to report other caches.