Iraq is contaminated by an estimated 10 to 15 million long-lived landmines, pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO), and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) from conflicts dating back to the 1940s. Numerous large barrier minefields and pieces of UXO remain along Iraq’s western border as a result of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. The 1990-1991 Gulf War and the Iraq War that began in 2003 resulted in a significant quantity of UXO in southern Iraq.
Most recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s prolonged occupation of extensive territory in Iraq, in some cases for more than three years, resulted in an unprecedented level of ERW. ISIS used mass-produced, technologically-advanced improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to defend captured territory and target Iraqi Security Forces, as well as to booby trap homes, public spaces, farmland, and infrastructure to discourage the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). From Basrah to Bashiqa and Sinjar to Chamchamal, explosive hazards from various conflicts continue to pose a serious threat to human security, limit economic development, and hinder the delivery of essential services.
In addition to supporting the clearance of over 53,000 dangerous explosive hazards in Iraq since 2015, the U.S. Department of State continues to support ERW risk education engagements across Iraq. These efforts reduce the risk to Iraqi civilians posed by ERW by increasing local communities’ awareness of explosive hazards and encouraging safe behavior in areas with confirmed or suspected ERW contamination. U.S.-funded risk education is delivered through numerous methods with the goal of targeting a wide cross section of Iraqi society within impacted communities. These activities are critical in ensuring the safety of displaced persons as they return to their homes in areas liberated from ISIS, as well as in areas of northern and southern Iraq that remain impacted by contamination from previous conflicts.
Many IDPs and refugees are returning to areas once occupied by ISIS to find their homes damaged or destroyed and the surrounding areas littered both with a combination of explosive hazards laid by ISIS to target returning civilians and Iraqi forces as well as unexploded ordnance from the fight to dislodge ISIS. These explosive hazards range from booby-trapped appliances in homes and abandoned ISIS ordnance factories in schools to large belts of improvised mines that span wide swaths of farmland. U.S.-funded programs seek to reduce the risk that these explosive hazards pose to returning Iraqis by delivering risk education in IDP camps as well as in communities impacted by ISIS.
Department of State partner Spirit of Soccer uses athletics to educate children and their families across Iraq, including in areas liberated from ISIS and in IDP camps, about the dangers of explosive hazards. The Assyrian Christian town of Telsquf is located approximately 20 miles north of Mosul and still bears the scars of ISIS’s brutal occupation. Since the town was liberated, 425 children have participated in Spirit of Soccer risk education activities, including a soccer tournament held on a soccer field refurbished with U.S. support. These activities play a vital role in keeping children safe and equipping them with the knowledge and printed pamphlets containing reference material to educate their families and friends about the dangers of ERW. Department of State support has enabled Spirit of Soccer to deliver risk education to more than 116,000 people since 2015 in areas of Iraq impacted by ISIS and legacy contamination.
ISIS occupied the village of Sherkan from August 2014 to late 2015, along with many other villages in the Ninewa Plain. As residents of Sherkan and the surrounding communities return to rebuild their lives, ISIS ERW poses a significant threat to human security and economic livelihood. U.S. support enables Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to deliver risk education across Ninewa Province in villages like Sherkan, as well as in IDP camps in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) that house Ninewa residents who have not yet returned to their homes. In Sherkan, MAG works with a broad cross section of Arab and Kurdish residents, with an emphasis on educating children about the threats posed by ERW. During interactive risk education sessions, children learn how to recognize dangerous items.
In southern Iraq, ERW from the Iran-Iraq war and other conflicts continues to pose a danger to local communities. Farmers, shepherds, and even children walking to school run the risk of encountering ERW. In addition to supporting ERW clearance efforts in this region, the Department of State supports risk education activities carried out by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), the Danish Demining Group (DDG), and Spirit of Soccer that seek to reduce the risks posed by ERW. NPA and DDG deliver risk education in schools, community centers, and homes in rural villages using photos in their presentations to help residents identify the different explosive hazards unique to southern Iraq. During a June 2018 DDG risk education session in the village of Al Seeba in southern Basrah Province, a child named Ali claimed to have seen an item similar to one pictured in DDG’s presentation next to the field where he and other children from the village play soccer. Ali had always thought it was just a piece of metal stuck in the ground; but, after the presentation, he was convinced that it was an explosive hazard. DDG excavated the item the next day and discovered that the piece of metal identified by Ali was, in fact, a dangerous unexploded 106mm rocket that the team then safely removed. Thanks to U.S.-funded programs in southern Iraq, over 60,000 Iraqis have received ERW risk education since 2015.
To learn more about the United States’ global conventional weapons destruction efforts, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.From the Ninewa Plain to southern Basrah, U.S.-funded risk education engagements play a critical role in equipping Iraqi communities with the knowledge necessary to live their lives in safety. The U.S. has invested over $176,000,000 since 2015 in the safety and security of the Iraqi people through the clearance of ERW and the delivery of risk education. This support continues to save lives on a daily basis and help lay the foundation for a stable and prosperous Iraq.
About the Author: Sol Black serves as a Program Manager in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.