by Michael Howard – The Guardian
KIRKUK (28 April 2003) – Unexploded ordnance and landmines littering northern Iraq have killed or maimed more people — many of them children — since the end of the war than during the fighting, a Guardian investigation has revealed.
In the two weeks after the cessation of hostilities on the northern frontline, which divided the Kurdish self-rule area from government-controlled territory, as many as 80 civilians have died and more than 500 have been injured.
“We are facing an emergency situation,” said Sean Sutton of the UK-based Mines Advisory Group, which is coordinating an operation in the region to clear unexploded ordnance and mines.
“Across Iraq, the detritus of war is killing, maiming and scarring for life adults and, most tragically, children.”
In the north, human rights groups, anti-mine organizations and Kurdish regional authorities are struggling to document the casualties. And, because of a piecemeal approach to record-keeping, mortality rates could be even higher than suggested.
To assess the scale of the problem, the Guardian visited hospitals and police stations in the city of Kirkuk, as well as in four towns on the south-east tip of the green line: Kalar, Kifri, Khanaqin and Jalula.
Casualty departments were struggling to cope with the effects of the arsenal left by the Iraqi army and US warplanes.
Among the injured were farmers who stepped on mines planted by retreating Iraqi soldiers; scrap dealers who tried to salvage brass from unexploded shells; and children who played a disastrous game of “genie” with gunpowder from anti-aircraft bullets.
Some of the 1,500 cluster bombs the US dropped on Iraq have also killed and wounded people around Mosul, Kirkuk and Jalula. In Mosul and Kirkuk, Iraqi soldiers stockpiled ammunition and small arms in homes and schools. “They clearly believed that by withdrawing into the cities they could make the war last for six months,” Mr Sutton said.
Reports from hospitals in Mosul suggest a rise in deaths and injuries since the end of hostilities, only some of it attributable to the unrest in the city after its fall.
But with more than 300 dead or injured so far, the population of Kirkuk appears to have suffered the most.
The Guardian was told of 44 deaths caused by landmines or unexploded ordnance in the five days after the collapse of the city on April 9. And, on April 15, 17 people were killed and three injured in one blast in the district of Dibs. They were reportedly trying to take scrap from unexploded shells.
At the Bayda secondary school for girls, researchers for Human Rights Watch found a classroom stuffed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells, and machine-gun bullets. A school guard said the ammunition had been taken to the school shortly before the war began, and that the girls had been forced to take their lessons in a room next door.
In Kirkuk, anti-personnel mines and ammunition were found packed into makeshift bunkers on common ground near residential areas. Other explosive materials lay around the grounds of abandoned military bases on the city’s edge. A local mosque was home to around 700 landmines.
Sutton said the Mines Advisory Group had also found evidence of a new type of American cluster bomb dropped outside the city.
The BLU 108, he explained, is an anti-armor bomblet with a sensor. When the mother unit is dropped it spews out four smaller units with parachutes. Each of these then slings out four lethal circular discs. “These should be directed toward armor,” Sutton said. “But we found them in fields. And 75% of them were unexploded.”
He said the group had cleared most of the cluster bombs from the city in cooperation with US forces. But more needed to be done.
“We need funds to clear up this mess now. For the price of two cruise missiles we could save many lives.”
Yesterday in Jalula locals told of cluster bombs dropped nearby. Hussein Khalifa, chief surgeon at the local hospital, said there had been 12 incidents of burns, mine and UXO injuries in the last few days.
As he spoke, another burns injury arrived. Satair Ahmed Abbas, 15, had been playing with explosives on wasteground near the military camp. He sat stoically as the doctor examined his charred face. “He’s lost one eye; we may be able to save the other,” Dr Khalifa said.
Later, in the town of Kalar, the Guardian was told of a further 12 deaths and 95 injuries in the two weeks after fighting stopped. Thirty-two of the injured were children.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)