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Landmine legacy threatens rebuilding of Iraq

Experts believe it could take some time to demine Iraq

(Keystone)

Humanitarian organisations are warning that it may take as long as a decade to clear millions of landmines and unexploded munitions in Iraq.

According to Geneva's International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, this deadly legacy of two decades of conflict could slow the reconstruction of the shattered country.

"Often, the clearance of mines is a precursor to delivery of humanitarian aid and then any reconstruction and development in the medium or longer term," said Ian Mansfield, the operations director of the government-backed anti-mine organisation.

"Just based on what existed in Iraq before this current conflict... we're certainly talking years for any clearance and clean up," he told swissinfo.

Slow process

Mansfield points to a lack of information about where and how munitions have been used as one of the main obstacles standing in the way of immediate clean up operations.

Another problem is that searching for mines is a painstaking process.

"Without knowing what's happened and who might have done what, it's very hard," he said.

"Clearing mines is a slow business, particularly if the mines are buried and they're in belts around villages and on roads and near water points."

"You have to check the ground literally centimetre by centimetre with a metal detector, or a dog or a machine to find the mines and then destroy them."

Bill Howell, the head of the mines department the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Handicap International, says the fact that Iraq's military and political infrastructure have been destroyed, means the clean up job will be left to humanitarian and civilian organisations.

"They're certainly prepared to move in and take on the work as soon as they're allowed to," Howell told swissinfo.

"But the work to be done is enormous and it's going to take quite a long time until we're out of the woods in terms of the large scale danger for the populations that are in these areas."

Millions of mines

Another NGO, Human Rights Watch, estimates that there are millions of mines in Iraq, although it is impossible to say just how many.

The country was littered with landmines long before the current conflict began as a result of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the 1991 Gulf War.

"I've been to the Iranian side of the border and I've seen miles and miles of trenches, barbed wire and landmines just sticking out of the ground... and I'm sure it was the same on the Iraqi side," said Mansfield.

"During the 1991 Gulf War, mines were laid in the north of the country in the Kurdish area, so before this current conflict there was quite a severe landmine problem in Iraq anyway," he added. "And certainly this conflict won't have helped matters."

Cluster bombs

According to Human Rights Watch, landmines are not the only problem facing clear-up teams in Iraq.

The organisation recently accused the United States of using of so-called "cluster bombs", which are know to have a high failure rate.

"Cluster bombs are a problem in the fact that they're delivered in large numbers," said Mansfield.

"The containers may have six or seven hundred cluster bombs inside them and they're quite small, so even though they're on the surface of the ground, they are difficult to see.

"It's the numbers of them and the small size that makes them particularly dangerous," he added.

Unexploded ordinance

Howell is deeply concerned that hundreds of unsuspecting civilians, including children and aid workers, will be maimed or killed by this type of unexploded ordinance, along with artillery shells and rockets.

"Cluster munitions might not be as sensitive as a landmine... but in many cases they're much more dangerous," he told swissinfo.

"We believe they should be banned because of their danger to populations and to innocent passers-by and because they can be set of involuntarily by civilians."

The executive director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, Steve Goose, agrees that cluster bombs should be forbidden.

"The United States should not be using these weapons," he said in statement. "Iraqi civilians will be paying the price with their lives and limbs for many years."

The US military has not confirmed whether it used such arms during its campaign against Saddam Hussein, but Howell says he is convinced they were used in Iraq.

Swiss controversy

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the state-owned weapons manufacturer, Ruag, has come under fire for continuing to produce cluster bombs for use by Swiss army tanks.

This is despite the fact that the production of similar air-dropped munitions was banned in Switzerland at the end of the 1990s.

"Production was stopped for humanitarian reasons and the stock of air-dropped cluster bombs was destroyed," Oswald Sigg, a spokesman for the Swiss defence ministry, recently told the German-language Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.

When contacted by swissinfo, Ruag's press office was unavailable for comment.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

Experts have warned that Iraq could remain littered with millions of mines and unexploded munitions for up to a decade.

The Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Demining says the sweeping and clearing process could delay the reconstruction of the country.

Handicap International estimates that hundreds of civilians, including children, are killed or maimed by mines each year.

Humanitarian organisations are also concerned about the alleged use of so-called "cluster bombs" in Iraq, which contain hundreds of smaller devices that often fail to explode.

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