Iraq halts clearing landmines even as huge toll keeps rising

McClatchy NewspapersJune 2, 2009 

SAID JABAR, Iraq — Sadiqa Foroon has lost two brothers, her right foot and 32 sheep to landmines and other explosive remnants of the three wars that have raged through her village since 1980.

Burns from the mine she stepped on contort the right side of her face. "And my horse is missing a hoof," she said with a weary laugh. "So is my donkey."

Still, every morning she trudges back into the sun-scorched scrubland behind her house — one of the most densely contaminated minefields on the planet, according to international aid organizations — to collect firewood in order to cook for 12 children, and to harvest whatever scrap metal she thinks she can sell.

That scrap trade, and the fear that desperate villagers are selling harvested explosives to Iraq's many insurgents, prompted the Ministry of Defense to halt all mine-clearing operations last December.

International relief organizations and Iraq's Environment Ministry opposed the ban, saying it delays desperately needed cleanup work in perhaps the most mine-ridden country in the world.

Some critics even accuse the Defense Ministry of exploiting the trafficking concerns to win control of the millions in foreign aid that's coming into the country to help clear mines.

"You know how much corruption we have in Iraq," said Alaa Abul Majeed, who runs a government-licensed de-mining company in Basra, in southern Iraq. His funding, about $9 million for the next four years, comes from the United Nations Development Program. "The security services think we have a lot of money from foreigners, and they think they can get some."

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.

As the bureaucrats in Baghdad wrestle over turf and treasure, villagers are left to pay the price, local officials said. They estimate that one Iraqi loses a limb, or his or her life, to unexploded ordnance each day.

Most of the casualties go unreported, however, and untreated by the failing national health system, because they occur in far-flung villages in Kurdistan, along the Iranian border and especially in the southern province of Basra, where U.S. forces began the 2003 invasion.

The U.N. estimates that during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, American planes dropped 54 million "cluster bombs," small, grenade-like explosives scattered from a single shell. Most fell in southern and central Iraq.

Deputy Environment Minister Kamal Latif said that an estimated 16 percent of those cluster bombs — more than 8 million — failed to explode and now litter the ground. They rest on top of 25 million landmines that the late dictator Saddam Hussein planted during Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s and before the Gulf War and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Perhaps no village is more tormented by remnants of the wars than is Said Jabar, a 20-minute drive east of Basra. Once it was a riverside oasis dense with palm trees, but fierce shelling during the Iran war cut down the orchards. Mines also make the land too dangerous to irrigate, leaving it barren except for the explosives.

More than 400 of the 2,500 residents have lost limbs or been killed by mines, said Ayad al Kanan, the sheik of one of the largest tribes in the area. "There is not a single house that has not been affected," he said.

People who lose limbs have little hope of finding jobs or getting married, so they're deemed expendable, and relatives often send them back into the minefields to forage for firewood or metal scrap, Kanan said. "Multiple injuries are not uncommon," he said.

Some people are cast into the fields out of spite.

Ali Zedan, 16, lives with his sisters and his one-legged father in a small cinder-block house about half a mile from the main village, in the middle of the mostly deserted battlefield. "There was a quarrel among the cousins," Zedan said, standing by a scrap heap filled with defused mines and artillery shells. A rusted soldier's helmet with a shrapnel hole in the forehead rested near his foot. "So my family had to come here."

Abdulbaqir Fadil, 36, lives a few hundred yards down a path dotted with unmarked anti-personnel mines exposed by erosion.

"This land has been in my family for 50 years," he said, explaining why he still lives there with seven children. He and his brother have cleared hundreds of mines. "If you remove the triggers," he said, "you can burn the explosives like firewood."

However, nobody has come to take away the mines he collects since the government announced the ban in December, Fadil said. Even before that, he said, grand promises occasionally were made about mine clearing projects, but they ended with photo opportunities and no progress.

As Fadil spoke to a reporter and a photographer, a shiny, silver BMW sped down the dusty road to his house. Two well-dressed young men hopped out. They didn't give their names, and wouldn't speak to the journalists. They wanted to listen, however. Fadil said simply, "I work with them."

As recently as February, Kanan, the tribal sheik, was quoted in a news report as saying that militant groups were still scavenging mines for explosives.

"During the violence, there used to be a problem with selling the explosives from the fields to criminals, but it is not a problem here anymore," he offered, however, as he ushered journalists back to their cars.

Even if mine clearing does resume, experts working in the field said, the explosives are just half the problem: The near total collapse of Iraq's rural health care system is the other half.

As sectarian violence engulfed the country four years ago, 75 percent of Iraq's doctors fled the country, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Warring militant groups frequently targeted them for kidnapping and assassination.

Majeed of the de-mining company said that sectarian fighters had pulled a doctor who'd provided emergency medical care for a Dutch group from his car and shot him to death at an impromptu checkpoint in 2007.

Last summer, the Iraqi Health and Social Care Organization reported that almost all mine victims wound up being treated by their families, and that only 4 percent were getting proper medical care.

"Four percent? That's much too high," scoffed Latif, the deputy environment minister. "I would say it's 1 percent or less. We have big shortages in this area."

Sadia Khalaf Lafta, 29, lost her foot to a mine in 2004 while she was tending sheep in the fields behind Said Jabar. She's received none of the painstaking reconstructive surgery that's necessary to prepare a stump to receive a properly fitted prosthetic.

While her older and younger sisters have married, Lafta lives with her mother in their hut, with few prospects. She still hobbles into the minefields to support the family.

Lafta's mother explained that amputees "are obliged to return; they have animals. They must to go back to the minefields to earn a living."

(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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