At first sight, there is little to distinguish the Iraqi Naval Academy from any other complex in Basra. There are the lines of beige-coloured buildings slung low against the desert heat, the usual network of fetid canals and the ubiquitous mountains of uncollected rubbish.
But take a closer look at the sea-freight containers ranged in rows throughout the base, and there - packed neatly to the metal rafters - sit thousands upon thousands of unexploded artillery and anti-aircraft shells, dozen upon dozen of boxes of plastic explosive, and even the odd warhead.
Collectively, these items of unexploded ordnance (UXO) represent one of the most alarming legacies of the Saddam era. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams estimate that this site alone accommodates more than 250 mt of UXO, and put the total figure for the Basra area conservatively at 1.5 million mt. Between them, the half dozen EOD team members, who have worldwide experience of UXO disposal, reckon Iraq has more UXO than they have seen anywhere else.
"There are more munitions here in Basra than in the entire war reserves for the Australian Defence Forces," said Bill Van Ree, a former Australian soldier and now head of the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Team (MACT). "I dread to think what this place looked like before the sanctions."
Apart from the sheer volume of UXO, the main concern for Van Ree and his team is the threat it poses to the civilians who live packed tightly together in the tumble-down houses around the naval complex.
One of Van Ree's colleagues has just found 13 Silkworm anti-shipping missile warheads. "If these were to explode, an area of a few square kilometres would be flattened," he said.
And the threat of UXO is not wasted on the Iraqis themselves, who, after decades of war, know the risks only too well. In fact, Van Ree's EOD team was called here by a group of concerned locals.
"We got worried about this place, because the bombs started going off," said a self-appointed community leader, Abu Jalal, a tall, thin man lent an air of dignity by his short, greying hair.
Those explosions were almost certainly set off by children trying to extract the propellant rods from UXO for subsequent use as a highly volatile cooking fuel.
|There is 1.5 million mt of UXO in Basra alone|
Abu Jalal and his neighbours initially tried to tackle the problem themselves by dumping boxes of UXO into a nearby river until the scale of the task became apparent and they decided to call in the MACT instead.
Short-staffed as they are, the MACT asked Abu Jalal to put together a team of 30 locals, who are now working with the MACT experts in an effort to get the site cleared as soon as possible.
With luck, they hope to finish the job within four to five days. But, warned Van Ree, this would not mean that the site would then be entirely safe - if, as local people had suggested, tonnes more UXO lay buried underground, which, if it proved to be true, there would be little, Van Rees admitted, that he his team could do about it.
"Our priority in the first stage is to go around and clear up what we find on the surface, but I would warn anyone who's considering doing any construction around here to be very careful," he warned.
Indeed, the scale of the UXO problem in Iraq has got Van Ree worried. "At the end of the day, we are going to have to ask governments and donors to make donations in kind, and loan us units of EOD experts in order to get this stuff cleaned up - money alone wont be enough," he 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