Editor's note: This story is part of DEADLY DEBRIS, a three-month investigation by a team of students at Northwestern University's Medill Graduate School of Journalism that examines the deadly legacy of the United States' use of landmines and cluster bombs around the world and its $3.2 billion effort to clean them up. Medill students reported the series from Cambodia, Iraq, Ukraine and Mozambique.
DOHUK, Iraq — At the break of dawn on a crisp November morning, Omer Hassan gathers his crew around a wood fire, waiting for the breakfast tea to boil.
From their base camp halfway up a mountain northeast of Dohuk, they quietly watch as daylight fills the remote valley. Hassan shifts his weight from his prosthetic limb. He lost his left leg 23 years ago to a landmine; now he leads mine clearance teams across Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq.
The minefield at the top of this particular mountain is the last of 23 sites his employer, Sterling Global Operations (SGO), has been contracted by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to clear this year. Hassan is anxious to complete the task before the snow sets in, halting operations for the winter.
Hassan’s home country of Iraq is one of the most dangerous places on Earth, and not just because of the constant infighting between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds and the decades of war, insurgencies and terrorism. Many years of conflict have made Iraq one of the most bombed-out places in the world, where an estimated 50 million landmines, cluster munitions and other pieces of unexploded ordnance could detonate at any time with lethal consequences.
First there was the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam Hussein’s bombing campaign against Hassan’s people, the Kurds. The United States laid millions of mines in the first Gulf War starting in 1991 and dropped tons of ordnance enforcing the subsequent no fly-zone. Then came the Iraq War, and years of bombing and other sustained combat operations to fight insurgents, especially in the south and central areas.
Three years ago, the US withdrew its troops from Iraq, and the American public for the most part has moved on from this conflict. But its legacy endures here.
Some Iraqi government estimates place the cost of cleanup in the billions of dollars, on top of the $258.9 million already spent over the past decade by the United States and smaller amounts by some other foreign donors. Even with a massive influx of money and manpower, Iraq’s mine clearance effort could take decades, if not longer.
In 2009, two United Nations agencies released a highly critical report of clearance efforts in Iraq to date. Their report said unexploded munitions were not only a deadly risk to Iraqis everywhere, but a major roadblock to the economic redevelopment of the country still reeling from the US invasion and occupation, and the brutal civil war and insurgency that followed.
"Iraq is on the brink of a social and environmental crisis if the situation stays as it is now,” Zahim Mutar, head of Baghdad-based NGO Iraqi Mine and UXO Clearance Organization, or IMCO, told the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the time.
Since then, things have only gotten worse.
That is especially the case throughout southern and central Iraq, where violence, political uncertainty and corruption have plagued cleanup efforts and precluded some international organizations from operating there.
But it is also the case here in Kurdistan, long considered the one bright spot in Iraq’s long struggle to rid itself of the explosive remnants of war. They litter the landscape, and have killed and maimed farmers as they till their fields, mothers as they walk to the market and, especially, young boys and girls.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reported in August 2013 that more than 29,000 people have been victims of landmine accidents in Iraq since the late 1980s. Nearly 15,000 of them, including 6,000 deaths, were in Kurdistan.
For years, the US-assisted mine-clearing investment has yielded a healthy return in Kurdistan, whose mine clearing programs — like the regional government itself — are largely autonomous from the central government in Baghdad. Its relative stability and autonomy, and its oil wealth, have allowed more than a dozen nonprofit humanitarian groups and private commercial companies like the Tennessee-based Sterling Global to flourish.
But more recently, the Islamic State terrorist group overran parts of Kurdistan, and huge numbers of refugees have been pouring across the border from Syria, swamping both the government and NGO community and setting off hundreds of mines in the process.
And, infighting with the Baghdad government has halted much of the money needed for mine clearance efforts here.
‘I am here, and my leg is there’
In the early light, Hassan scans a detailed topographical map of the mountain tacked to the side of a makeshift lean-to. Established some 30 years ago during the Iran-Iraq War and overlooking the supply route through the valley, the mountaintop base is ringed by a network of Italian-made Valmara 69 anti-personnel mines.
The post was eventually abandoned, but the mines were left in place, indiscriminately blowing up anyone who came upon them. As his team methodically worked to remove the mines over the last few weeks, Hassanmeticulously marked their precise locations on the map in red ink: dots for landmines, and small x’s for metal shards where one had previously been set off. By now a thick bright red crescent rings the map.
His investment in mine clearance is as much personal as it is professional.
Hassan, 43, grew up in the town of Qaladiza near the Kurdistan border with Iran. From 1980 to 1988, he watched as Iran and Iraq went to war, each side laying mines to destroy the other. Then came the Gulf War, and in its aftermath, the US effort to back Kurdistan’s fearsome peshmerga fighters as they rose up against Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi Army struck back hard, laying thousands more mines. Innocent Kurds were being killed and injured at an alarming rate. Then 21, Hassan volunteered to help clear the ordnance from his hometown of Qaladiza, near the border with Iran.
After a short training course, Hassan set to work. The morning of Aug. 24, 1991, his team was clearing a farmer’s field and came across an artillery shell protruding from the dirt. Slowly making his way toward the shell, Hassan couldn’t have known it was a decoy; whoever put it there knew anyone but an experienced clearance team would overlook the mines covertly buried around it.
“I didn’t even feel anything, but … everything changed suddenly,” Hassan recalls of the blast. “I saw my leg on the ground: I am here, and it is there.”
Daily visits by his girlfriend, whom he affectionately terms his “lovely,” helped get Hassan through the early days. But the depression overwhelmed him and he was nearly broke from medical expenses. He worried constantly about being a burden on his family, and took the only job he could get — selling cigarettes at the local market.
Through a chance encounter, he met an employee of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK-based nonprofit humanitarian agency that had recently arrived in Kurdistan to assist with demining efforts.
MAG, one of the pre-eminent mine action groups in the world, trained Hassan in international professional standards for demining: how to methodically plot out a grid over a mined area; how to move forward on one’s belly with nothing more than a stick or trowel and, inch by inch, probe the ground; how to cordon off UXO when found and provide warning markers; how to safely defuse and remove the UXO.
The group also taught Hassan another skill he’d long coveted: how to speak English.
For the next 20 years, he worked with MAG in clearing unexploded ordnance throughout Kurdistan. Along the way, he married his “lovely” and fathered four children. He found the work immensely satisfying, especially in educating the public on how to recognize, avoid and even clear mines.
“I show myself as an example,” he says. “I tell them, ‘If you do a mistake, you gonna lose a leg, or your life, or your hands, your eyes.’”
Kurdistan’s mine clearance efforts have existed in various forms since 1991, when the Iraqi military and government withdrew from the region under the American no-fly zone Operation Safe Haven, leaving Kurds to manage their own affairs. The Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency, or IKMAA, was established in 2003, and merged with another key Kurdistan de-mining group in 2012.
IKMAA is responsible for coordinating and prioritizing all unexploded ordnance work in the region. It also does training, mine risk education and victims’ assistance and advocacy. Since that year, it has overseen an average clearance of 1 million square meters annually.
In 2011, Hassan joined one of the commercial mine clearance firms operating in Kurdistan, Sterling Global, as the site manager for its field operations in the region, overseeing its clearance work at the ground level.
It was a good time to make the switch. Sterling Global was expanding rapidly in Kurdistan thanks to all of the oil companies that were doing a booming business, and spending big to protect their expensive infrastructure.
But as Kurdistan was busier than ever clearing its unexploded ordnance, similar efforts in the rest of Iraq — never very robust or successful to begin with — were coming to a halt.
A social and environmental crisis
Hassan and his men trudge the rest of the way up the mountain to begin the day’s work. Two red wooden stakes forming an X demarcate the beginning of the minefield. Beyond this, they follow a narrow path cleared through the heart of the minefield and break into teams to resume where they left off the day before. Inching forward on their bellies, they use a bayonet to systematically prod the dirt before them.
For 10-meter stretches at a time, they probe one meter across and 13 centimeters deep. As they move forward, another teammate follows behind to sweep the ground with a military-grade metal detector, searching for small shards. The detector squelches constantly as the crew slowly progresses.
For the first few years of the US occupation of Iraq, mine clearance in the south and central regions was a high priority, overseen by the United Nations and then the US government, while the Kurdistan government was allowed to continue the work it was already doing.
Then control — and funding — for the areas outside of Kurdistan shifted to the fledgling Iraqi government in Baghdad.
IMCO, the Baghdad-based NGO, was established in September 2003 and grew to a staff of at least 225 people. It cleared more than 174,000 landmines and pieces of unexploded ordnance and trained other NGOs and Iraqi security forces.
But that was a drop in the bucket, especially given how much ordnance the US has dropped in the country.
The war in Iraq and the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan were the last times the US military dropped cluster bombs in large numbers. Many of them remain and are exacting a horrific human toll. From 2001 through 2002, the US dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 sub-munitions in Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the independent research arm of Congress.
During just the first three weeks of the 2003 Iraq invasion, US and British forces deployed approximately 2 million cluster bomb submunitions, many of them in residential areas in places like Basrah, Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad. Up to 30 percent of these failed to detonate on impact, and more than 10 years later, their deadly debris remains a threat to local populations. There have been at least 8,000 killed or injured by the weapons since 2003.
The US stopped using the cluster bombs in Iraq in 2003. But CRS investigators raised questions about why one particular — and popular — cluster munition had been used there after causing so many problems during the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan.
“It is widely believed that confusion over US cluster submunitions (BLU-97/B) that were the same color and size as air-dropped humanitarian food packets played a major role in the US decision to suspend cluster munitions use in Afghanistan,” CRS noted, adding, “but not before using them in Iraq.”
The Baghdad government created a National Mine Action Authority but it was so ineffective — and inactive — that it was shut in 2007. The next year, the Ministry of Environment created a Directorate of Mine Action whose mission was to create a national plan of action. It was supported by a Regional Mine Action Center in Basra, which was supposed to coordinate clearance in the south.
In 2008, Iraq signed the Ottawa Convention, the international treaty banning anti-personnel mines. Under the terms of the convention, the Baghdad government committed to rid the country of mines within 10 years and to never use, manufacture, acquire or export them.
But mismanagement and other problems intensified. By 2009, the Baghdad government had banned all civilian landmine clearance, citing fears that the weapons would end up in the hands of militants. US, UN and even Iraqi officials were sharply critical of the lack of progress, and finger-pointing ensued.
"They are in the same league as Afghanistan in terms of saturation," Kent Paulusson, the United Nations Development Fund's senior mine action adviser for Iraq, said at the time. "The government needs to recognize the size of the problem and deal with it."
"Some areas are so contaminated,” Paulusson added, “that people can't live there.”
A partial survey released that year by the UNDP and UNICEF concluded that contamination plagued the entire country, with 4,000 hazard areas totaling 670 square miles.
Reporting mechanisms were so inadequate that no one could say for sure where the contamination posed the greatest risks, or how many people had been killed or injured by explosions. But the human toll was mounting, and garnering headlines. Six children were killed and five others severely injured in the southern province of Missan when a bomb exploded as they were playing football.
In response to the UN report, Iraq’s Environment Minister Narmin Othman pleaded for international assistance, saying "billions of dollars" would be needed for cleanup. Othman said three companies were helping Iraq and that 17 more were trying to get licenses. But even with an accelerated effort, Iraq had no chance of meeting the 2018 treaty deadline.
The UN survey said national and international demining organizations had cleared about 12.5 square miles of Iraq. That left nearly 1,055 square miles to go. Another official study put it in human terms: Despite all the cleanup efforts, 1.6 million Iraqis in 1,600 communities were affected, or one in every 20 Iraqis.
The military was still doing mine clearance at the time, but at a rate that “would take … about 600 years" to clear Iraq of mines and other ordnance, Paulusson said.
In 2011, Iraq convened a Higher Committee for Mine Action that brought all government agencies together to make more headway. The next year, the UN’s top envoy to Iraq, Martin Kobler, said, “Much more needs to be done to rid the country from these lethal threats.”
Meanwhile, the Iraqi mine clearance effort was being increasingly undermined by politics, corruption and the declining security situation. Recent years have shown some minimal improvements, but Iraq remains one of the most contaminated countries on Earth.
Things were much different in Kurdistan, where the semiautonomous government had been running its own de-mining program since 1993. When Hassan joined the commercial demining firm Sterling Global in 2011, it had more business than it knew what to do with.
Right place, right time
By 9 a.m., Hassan and his crew have located four Valmara 69 mines. As each one is found, Hassan’s men cordon it off and continue clearance around it.
The Valmara is a “bounding mine.” When set off, a charge sends the main explosive charge three to four feet in the air. This then explodes at waist level into about 140 razor-sharp fragments. A person who steps on one will be immediately cut in half; anyone else close by will die instantly from the metallic spray.
The crew identifies something more threatening, however: many of the Valmara mines are covertly surrounded by several TS-50 anti-personnel mines. Whereas the clunky Valmara are easily found by a metal detector, the tiny TS-50 is almost entirely plastic, making detection a thousand times more difficult. The TS-50 is a small explosive mine; it is designed to maim, not to kill. From a defensive standpoint, these are emplaced to defend the Valmara: tactically, it makes more sense to incapacitate the mine-seekers.
As each mine is located, Hassan steps in to defuse and neutralize them. The mines are not destroyed in place so as to not further contaminate the soil with metallic fragments. Rather, Hassan calls representatives of the Kurdistan government agency IKMAA, who will come pick up the mines to destroy them in a centralized facility.
When Hassan joined Sterling Global, the firm had already been doing business in Iraq for eight years. Known at the time as EOD Technology, the commercial ordinance disposal company was first hired by the US government on the heels of the 2003 invasion as part of Operation Restore Iraqi Oil, or RIO.
Its mission: to follow close behind coalition forces to counter any repeat performance of the 1991 Gulf War, when retreating Iraqi forces set ablaze and heavily mined its vast oil fields. After the fall of Baghdad, there was plenty of clearance work, especially around Basrah and the south of Iraq.
“The country is, or was, one big ammunition dump. There were huge stores of ordinance all over the place,” recalls Steve Priestley, a UK military sapper at the time who is now Sterling Global’s principal for mine action programs worldwide.
From there, the firm’s operations expanded exponentially, not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially in conflict zones. The company was tasked with triaging an endless stream of ordinance for either repurposing or destruction.
The conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom in late 2011 and the impending drawdown of US forces meant less and less work for the firm in the southern parts of Iraq. EODT and Sterling Global merged in 2012, creating one of the world’s largest firms engaged in the clearance of mines and other unexploded ordnance. And they soon found a booming business in oil-rich Kurdistan.
In recent years, Sterling Global had 13 contracts for humanitarian demining work in Kurdistan, and other ones with international oil and gas companies to make sure that prospective oil exploration areas were cleared of unexploded ordnance. It won more than $10 million in 2013 alone.
Last year, Sterling Global underwent a huge expansion in Kurdistan, creating a 200,000 square-foot regional logistics hub near the capital of Erbil. Its opening was attended by State Department officials, local and regional government officials and commercial oil and gas industry leaders.
Hassan is eager to keep working. But he says a lot of the mine clearance work is now on hold because of political and other problems.
"I would like to continue my life with these things,” he says. “Our job is very important.”