By Mr. Pehr Lodhammar, Chief Mine Action Programme, United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), Iraq
With funding from over 20 United Nations (UN) Member States, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has been conducting survey and clearance, explosive ordnance risk education and technical support for the national mine action authorities as well as other mine action stakeholders in Iraq for more than six years. Mine action activities are carried out in close cooperation and coordination with the Iraqi Directorate of Mine Action under the Ministry of Health and in collaboration with a multitude of international and national organisations, including non-governmental organisations and commercial outfits. Since the commencement of operations in 2015, following a request for support from the UN, the UNMAS programme has evolved as geographical priorities have shifted and with this also the operating environment, hence affecting the technical approach and team structures over time. It is these challenges that has resulted in UNMAS adopting a flexible approach to operational planning ensuring a tailored and effective approach to clearance could be delivered consistently’.
When UNMAS first entered West Mosul in August 2017, there was limited understanding and knowledge of what the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had left behind in terms of explosive contamination. It was known that the modus operandi had been to use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to deny access to key locations, as part of the ISIL strategic defence and also to deny the return of displaced populations using tactics of the scorched-earth as Iraqi security forces and the global coalition gained more and more momentum throughout the Caliphate. What was unknown and beyond imagination, was the extent of usage, the evil genius employed in the design of the IEDs and that operators would be clearing unexploded ordnance in an urban environment often covered under debris at an estimated amount of 7.6 million tonnes of debris from the fighting in Mosul only. Hidden under this debris operators would soon discover hundreds of bodies from fallen ISIL fighters. Many of them were wearing explosive suicide belts or vests, which had to be carefully removed and rendered safe before the bodies could be transported for burial. All in all, a completely new environment for the mine action community and its operators, most of them used to a more “traditional demining setting” with no applicable International Mine Action Standards for this setting in existence at the time, which in part also drove the subsequent authorship of the new IMAS and IEDD best practices guides. As work progressed, operators would find and have to detect and render safe a multitude of different IEDs including ones fitted with pressure plate switches, anti-lift devices, tripwires, remote controlled devices, even passive infrared systems with a main charge in the form of an explosive formed penetrator and many other types of devices, including even toys fitted with explosive devices.
The first task for UNMAS Iraq in West Mosul, in support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of Iraq’s stabilization efforts, was the Al Shifa Hospital Complex. Once the second most modern hospital in Iraq and consisting of numerous different hospitals, including a teaching hospital, a blood bank, a burns unit and a maternity ward, it was initially used as a hospital by ISIL but later turned into their headquarters as the fighting progressed. Amongst other reasons, it was used as headquarters due to the observation opportunities the high-rise buildings in the area offered. At Al Shifa, UNMAS implementing partners cleared over 751 IEDs, improvised chemical ammunition, suicide belts, main charges and another 12,230 items of explosive remnants of war in a built-up area of a size less than 50,000 square metres and with extreme levels of war debris.
Almost four years later, the operating environment and scenario are different and clearance activities are mainly happening in the outskirts of Mosul, in the areas of Tal Afar and Sinjar where belts of IEDs are now being cleared in agricultural areas. The UNMAS programme has shifted its focus from supporting stabilization to primarily supporting durable solutions. Durable solutions are designed and implemented to ensure that displaced populations can return to and remain safely in their places of origin across the areas liberated from ISIL. Outside of Mosul, kilometre after kilometre of extensive IED belts laid in systems similar to traditional minefields are being cleared by women and men working side by side supported by mechanical means of clearance, mainly front-end loaders and excavators that have been fitted with armoured cabins to protect the operator. The area of Tel Kaif, north of Mosul, is a stark example of the level of IED contamination in the areas surrounding Mosul. Since early January 2021 until November 2021, UNMAS implementing partner Global Clearance Solutions (GCS) has cleared more than 2,274 IEDs, many of the improvised type VS 500, serial produced by ISIL, but also a multitude of various projectiles of different calibres. In Tel Kaif, IEDs constructed with main charges as large as 150 litres have also been rendered safe and removed. These deadly devices contain ammonium nitrate (fertilizer) mixed with aluminium power and fitted with pressure plates and anti-lift switches, and in some cases containing purposely made and pre-cut steel fragmentation.
Moving from the initial urban operating environment with individual IEDs to a more rural environment, UNMAS has adjusted the operating method and team structures to better and more effectively address the threats encountered. Clearance activities are now much more similar to traditional demining operations but with a few important differences including the fact that that new and, in Iraq, previously unseen devices are still encountered during clearance. Also, rather than strictly working with commercial organisations as when stabilization was supported, UNMAS is now working more with international and national non-governmental organisations who are operating in tandem to ensure that national, localized and autonomous capacity is developed to ensure a move towards national ownership and, eventually, a smooth exit from operational support for UNMAS.
In support of durable solutions, UNMAS have also added residential area clearance teams specialized in clearance of houses to ensure that displaced populations can return to their homes and resume their livelihoods without the presence and risk from unexploded ordnance and other explosive remnants of war. As the demands and requirements are changing, UNMAS will continue to adjust operational activities to best serve the people of Iraq and to ensure the safe return of displaced populations. New challenges have required UNMAS Iraq to constantly respond with clearance assets and methodologies suited for and adapted to the threat and the operating environment.
Pehr Lodhammar is the Chief of Mine Action Programme for UNMAS in Iraq. He has over twenty years of experience in humanitarian demining operations and with over six years of experience from the mine action sector in Iraq.