Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities suffered unspeakable atrocities under the genocidal rule of ISIS. Beyond the toll that ISIS took on Iraq’s Shia and Sunni populations, ISIS systematically targeted Christian, Kaka’i, Shabak, Turkmen, and Yezidi communities across Ninewa and Kirkuk Provinces. ISIS subjected these groups to countless atrocities, including individual and mass killings, crucifixion, slavery, torture, and rape. The United States is committed to helping these historically marginalized and recently devastated communities safely return to their ancestral homelands and rebuild their lives in peace. One of the obstacles keeping Iraqi minorities from returning to their homes is dangerous explosive hazards, including landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) left by ISIS. These devices indiscriminately kill returning civilians, deny repair teams access to damaged critical infrastructure associated with the delivery of essential services, impede cultivation of farmland, delay economic recovery, and perpetuate ISIS’s reign of terror long after they are gone.
Since 2015 ERW clearance teams funded by the Department of State have cleared more than 10,500 explosive hazards in minority communities across Ninewa and Kirkuk Provinces affecting critical infrastructure associated with the delivery of clean water, power, healthcare, and education, as well as homes, churches, temples, and farmland. The U.S. Department of State obligated approximately $37 million dollars in fiscal year 2017 to support ERW survey, clearance, and risk education in and around Iraqi minority communities. This increased support fulfils a pledge to expand ERW clearance in Iraqi minority communities made by Secretary Pompeo at the July 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, and will enable our partners on the ground to recruit and train 15 new ERW clearance teams focused on clearing the ancestral homelands of Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi communities. These new teams will complement the efforts of the 30 U.S.-funded survey, clearance, and risk education teams currently deployed across Ninewa.
ISIS singled out Christian and Yezidi villages in Ninewa during its reign of terror, destroying houses of worship, shrines, homes, and cemeteries while subjecting Christian and Yezidi residents to some of the group’s most depraved atrocities. While ISIS has been driven out of the ancestral homelands of Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi communities, the threat of ISIS ERW persists. U.S.-funded clearance of dangerous explosive hazards has allowed repair teams from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of Iraq to safely access infrastructure damaged by ISIS and restore the delivery of essential services, including clean water, to Christian and other religious minority communities across the Ninewa Plains. One example of this support is the Khwajat Khalil water pipeline, which is a key source of water for the Tel Kaif, Al Qosh, and Wana Districts of Ninewa. The pipeline originates northwest of Mosul in the town of Khwajat Khalil, where water is extracted from the Tigris River, treated, and then pumped north through a series of pipelines that delivered clean water to approximately 60,000 people prior to being disrupted by ISIS.
Once Khwajat Khalil and the surrounding areas were liberated from ISIS, UNDP and local authorities prioritized repairing the pipeline to restore the delivery of clean water. These repairs, however, could not be conducted safely until the pipeline and surrounding areas were cleared of explosive hazards left by ISIS. U.S.-funded partner Janus Global Operations took on the dangerous task of clearing approximately five miles of pipeline to facilitate the repairs. During the clearance process, Janus and their Iraqi partner, Al Fahad, methodically removed more than 160 ISIS IEDs located along the pipeline. Thanks to this rapid U.S.-funded assistance, UNDP and Iraqi engineers were able to safely repair the pipeline, which once again provides clean water to returning minority communities in the Ninewa Plains. Additionally, the clearance of several large IED belts identified by Janus while clearing the pipeline has enabled local communities to farm the fertile land surrounding the pipeline safely.
In addition to facilitating access to critical infrastructure and the delivery of essential social services, U.S.-funded ERW clearance operations are making it safe for Iraqis to return to their houses of worship. ISIS occupied the town of Karamlees, located 18 miles southeast of Mosul, from August 2014 to October 2016. During this period, ISIS destroyed and desecrated Karamlees’ churches, monasteries, and cemeteries, as well as laid several large belts of IEDs around the town to impede advances by Iraqi Security Forces and deny returning communities access to fertile land. U.S.-funded NGO Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) recently cleared 30 ISIS IEDs in Karamlees that were preventing families from Karamlees and surrounding villages from safely living their lives. The clearance of this IED belt, as well as other IEDs and UXO in Karamlees, has enabled local residents to safely return to their homes and attend their churches without being terrorized by buried ISIS bombs.
When ISIS invaded Sinjar and surrounding towns in 2014, they killed more than 3,000 Yezidis and took at least 6,000 of them hostage as sex slaves or child soldiers, half of whom remain missing. ISIS destroyed Yezidi temples, demolished homes in Yezidi villages, and littered the surrounding farmland with IEDs. The United States was one of the first countries to support ERW clearance activities in Yezidi villages liberated from ISIS in Ninewa’s Sinjar District and is currently the largest international supporter of ERW clearance efforts in this area. Across Sinjar, U.S.-funded ERW clearance operations carried out by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) have helped facilitate the return of displaced Yezidis through the clearance of ERW from infrastructure, homes, and farmland. U.S. funding has also enabled MAG to clear ERW from several Yezidi temples, enabling local communities to rebuild their houses of worship safely.
ISIS captured the Yezidi town of Barbaroshk in August 2014, destroying numerous homes and littering the area with explosive hazards before Iraqi forces liberated the town in November 2016. Following the liberation of Barbaroshk, MAG began the dangerous and methodical process of surveying the village and clearing explosive hazards left by ISIS. During this process, Yezidi clearance teams employed by MAG removed 22 ISIS IEDs and 11 pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) that were threatening the safety of local residents as well as blocking safe access to a water supply point that provides drinking water to four surrounding villages. Because of this timely U.S. assistance, many of Barbaroshk’s residents have returned to their homes and local engineers were able to rehabilitate the water supply point safely.
Beyond Christian and Yezidi communities, ISIS also singled out Turkmen, Kaka’i, and Shabaks across Ninewa and Kirkuk. U.S.-funded ERW clearance operations have played a critical role facilitating access to clean water, power, healthcare, education, farmland, and fisheries for these communities, from Tal Afar in Ninewa to Albo Muhammad in Kirkuk. In the historically Turkmen city of Tal Afar, for example, U.S. partners cleared numerous grain storage and processing facilities as well as farmland to help facilitate the safe redevelopment of what was a thriving agricultural center prior to the destructive reign of ISIS. In the Kaka’i village of Taraba, U.S.-funded clearance teams removed 31 ISIS IEDs from three local fish farms, enabling the local community to rebuild its economy.
ISIS’s efforts to eradicate Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities has left deep scars; and the United States remains committed to helping these persecuted communities recover from the death and destruction delivered by ISIS. U.S.-funded ERW clearance efforts play a critical role in removing ISIS’s deadly legacy and laying the groundwork for these communities to return safely to their ancestral homelands and rebuild their lives with dignity and respect.
The United States has invested over $176,000,000 since 2015 in the safety and security of the Iraqi people through the ERW survey, clearance, and risk education. This support continues to save lives on a daily basis, and helps lay the foundation for a stable and prosperous Iraq. 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.
About the Author: Solomon Black serves as a Program Manager for Iraq in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs' Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.