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Saddam's land mines are threat to U.S. troops

CAMP 6, Kuwait—U.S. Army Sgt. Dale Vanormer spotted it first, a green, tennis-sized ball on the desert sand: It was an anti-personnel bomblet left over from the Persian Gulf War in 1991, still lethal enough to blow off a leg.

Munitions like it have killed 1,700 civilians in Kuwait since the war ended, despite a massive and continuing campaign that has removed 1 million land mines and 100 tons of unexploded ordnance from the Kuwaiti desert since the war.

U.S. troops will face the same threat if they invade Iraq: 10 million land mines sown by Saddam Hussein along his borders, plus unexploded ordnance, or UXO, from 1991 and from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

"Kuwait demined heavily and people still find them to this day. Iraq never demined, so that must be a very dangerous UXO environment," said an army colonel from an Asian country who worked on Kuwait's demining campaign. He spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

U.S. military officers here awaiting President Bush's decision on an attack against neighboring Iraq say they are deeply concerned about land mine and UXO risks.

"We know Saddam will put some mines out there to try to block our way, and we're trained to deal with those threats," said Vanormer, 32, a Pittsburgh native and combat engineer with the 3rd Infantry Division.

But the Gulf War showed that land mines and UXOs can slow down attacks, divert units from assigned targets and cause friendly casualties, especially rear-guard units that lack armored vehicles.

One 1st Cavalry Division support unit took five days to move 20 miles into Kuwait because its route was "saturated" with dud U.S. bomblets fired at Iraqi troops, according to a September report by Congress' General Accounting Office on the use of land mines during the Gulf War.

Although the Pentagon reported that 177 of the 1,364 American casualties in that war were caused by Iraqi and "unknown" mines and UXOs—not U.S.-made—the GAO said some casualties probably were due to American munitions.

U.S. troops deployed 117,634 land mines in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991,"the largest U.S. combat use of its newer aircraft and artillery-delivered . . . self-destructing mines" in history, the GAO reported.

These so-called "smart" mines are supposed to self-destruct within four hours, 48 hours or 15 days of deployment, and their batteries are designed to die in 120 days. The United States didn't deploy "dumb" mines in Kuwait or Iraq, the GAO said.

American warplanes also dropped thousands of tons of bombs around Iraq, many of them canisters with up to 250 bomblets designed to spread in the air and explode on the ground.


Despite what the Asian colonel called "the most intensive, extensive and expensive demining campaign in history" to clean up unexploded munitions, they have killed 1,700 people and injured another 2,300 since the Gulf War ended.

Three youths joy-riding around the western desert last month were injured when their four-wheel drive vehicle set off an unidentified UXO, the Kuwait Times newspaper reported.

One U.S. soldier was injured and his 70-ton Abrams tank lost three pieces of tread when it detonated an apparent anti-tank mine on desert maneuvers in October, Vanormer said.

The U.S. bomblet that he spotted near Camp 6, a U.S. urban warfare-training base 10 miles from the Iraqi border, was marked and safely detonated later by an explosives and ordnance removal unit.

In contrast to Kuwait, Iraq isn't known to have carried out any methodical demining operations since 1991.

In addition, Iraq's military has sown 10 million mines to protect itself, according to State Department reports. They are mainly along Iraq's northern border with rebel Kurdish areas and its southern and eastern borders with Kuwait and Iran.

Half of Iraq's agricultural land is reported to be unusable now because of the mines and UXOs, and the Iraqi News Agency carries occasional reports on children killed by UXOs, especially in areas of southeastern Iraq that saw pitched fighting during the war against Iran.


(Juan Tamayo reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.