Unexploded ordnance (UXO) in northern Iraq is killing and maiming dozens of people every day. "It is an absolute emergency," Sean Sutton, the information manager with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), told IRIN from As-Sulaymaniyah in northeastern Iraq.
"In the short term, this is a horrendous problem, unequalled anywhere else in the world," he said, "because children are playing with stockpiles of unexploded ordnance left by Iraqi forces within towns, and on their outskirts, in military and police buildings and schools."
It is believed that following the first days of fighting in the region, the Iraqi army command structures and control broke down, leading to little or no communication between the soldiers.
They pulled back into towns to prepare for a defensive stand, but then abandoned the fight when no orders were being received from superiors. Most of them then dissolved into local communities, or fled, leaving huge stockpiles of arms behind them.
North of Kirkuk, 11 underground bunkers full of munitions had been abandoned, said Sutton, leading to at least 30 people being killed. In the last week alone, MAG had shifted close to half a million dangerous items from around the city, he said.
In the first five days following the fall of Kirkuk to coalition forces, a total of 44 people - mostly children - were killed and the same number injured, he said. In Kifri, southeast of Kirkuk, 83 had been reported killed last week, he added.
In Mosul, two local hospitals visited by Sutton in the last couple of days reported receiving up to 20 injured patients daily between them - about three shrapnel glass injuries each from UXO and landmines, and six or seven burn victims each.
In the village of Qadir Karam, between Chamchamal and Kirkuk, a MAG team found a stockpile of between 500 and 700 antipersonnel mines in a local mosque.
While the short-term emergency focus was shifting the UXO out of harm's way, and clearing specific routes and areas, the long-term focus would be the "extensive minefields" that had been laid, he said.
|Unexploded mortar bombs in a stream|
Ben Lark, the deputy global landmines coordinator with the United Nations Children's Fund, told IRIN in the Jordanian capital, Amman, that no reliable and specific information was available on the Iraqi situation, except for the three semi-autonomous northern governorates of Dahuk, Arbil and As-Sulaymaniyah.
The Iran-Iraq border had been heavily mined during the 1980-88 war, as well as areas in the south during the 1991 Gulf war, and areas along the borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and possibly Syria, he said. Before 1991, the Iraqi army had also left "vast quantities of ammunition" littered around the country, and coalition forces had added to this in the northern and southern no-fly zones. "But we've no idea what is where," he said.
The latest Iraqi war had also left behind a wide range of artillery, rockets, hand grenades, fuses, machine guns with ammunition still in them, mines and cluster bombs, he said.
UNICEF plans to start a mass awareness campaign by piggybacking on existing networks, including schools, mosques, and community leaders. "The key issue is to get children off the streets," he said.
Lark advised NGOs working in Iraq to talk to coalition forces and local people in each area they went to, never to travel off-road, to avoid damaged buildings or partly destroyed vehicles, never to touch anything on the ground, and to assume that any military equipment was lethal. "A lot of them don't look dangerous, like fuses, but children regularly lose fingers and are blinded by them," he added.
Aneeza Pasha, a community liaison adviser with MAG in Amman, added that routes needed to be checked every day, as mines were often laid overnight. "It is essential to get clearance every single day," she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions