Iraq would need 'an army' to remove all land mines

McClatchy NewspapersJune 2, 2009 

SAID JABAR, Iraq — Homemade bombs go off almost every day in Iraq, usually targeting military and police convoys in cities such as Baghdad and Mosul. It's been suspected for years that insurgents harvest at least some of their explosives from the contaminated soil in places such as Said Jabar.

U.S. military officials estimated in 2007 that 15 percent of the charges for improvised explosive devices — the ubiquitous homemade bombs used to attack American forces — came from land mines and other unexploded munitions.

So Officials in the Ministry of Environment and at companies that receive foreign aid to clear mines ask why the military waited until December to ban clearing as a way to halt the trafficking.

Alaa Abul Majeed, who runs the government-licensed de-mining company in Basra with funds from the United Nations Development Program, charged that regional military staffers had exaggerated the trafficking concerns in hopes of getting a cut from the international aid budget. The commanders in Baghdad go along because they don't want to seem soft on insurgents, he said.

The trouble, Majeed said, is "all the international donors are thinking of pulling out, because for five months they've been getting reports that say 'zero mines cleared.' "

Ministry of Defense spokesman Muhammad al Askari, the only Defense Ministry official authorized to speak to the news media, didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Defense, Interior and Environment ministries are working out a compromise to be announced next month, said Kamel Latif, the deputy environment minister, who's responsible for mine clearing in southern Iraq.

As part of the deal, everyone working on de-mining projects had to submit a curriculum vita to the Defense Ministry for a background check. If they have no links to insurgent organizations, they'll be allowed to resume clearing mines soon, Latif said.

In return, the ministry will get "just a small assistance for training" its own de-miners from the international aid budget, Latif said. "And only if the (United Nations Development Program) says OK."

Latif said he didn't know much the military would get.

Hussein Ahmed, a technical adviser for the UNDP, said his agency was satisfied with the compromise, but was frustrated that 25 mine-clearing projects around Basra alone had been stalled since the ban began in December.

"The Iraqi government, they don't take mine-clearing activity seriously," Ahmed said.

Foreign mine experts left the country during the height of the sectarian violence, and most haven't returned. As aid money trickles back, Iraqi ministries and fledging local companies have ignored generally accepted hiring standards.

"For example, they called their brothers and sisters to take the jobs, and these people have absolutely no experience with mines," Ahmed said.

There are 900 such employees on government and private payrolls, ready to resume clearing mines when the military gives them the OK, Latif said.

However, Environment Minister Narmin Othman said that wasn't nearly enough workers to meet the conditions of an international treaty that Iraq signed promising to clear the country of mines by 2018.

"We would need an army of 25,000 people," she said.

(Dolan reports for The Miami Herald. Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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