BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government's failure to grasp the scope of its problem with land mines and bombs has derailed efforts to clear what is considered one of the world's most contaminated countries, a U.N. official said yesterday.
The government has banned all civilian land-mine clearance because of military fears that the old weapons will wind up in the hands of militants. That has threatened Iraq's chances of meeting its internationally mandated obligation to clear the country of land mines and unexploded remnants of war by 2018.
"They are in the same league as Afghanistan in terms of saturation," Kent Paulusson, the U.N. Development Fund's senior adviser on land mines in Iraq, said in a presentation yesterday. "The government needs to recognize the size of the problem and deal with it."
Iraq's problem stems from decades of hostilities - the war with Iran in the 1980s, the U.S. Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and the 2003 U.S. invasion, Paulusson said. While the problem has been overshadowed by the internal strife and near civil war that broke out there in 2006, the deadly weapons remain buried and scattered across the country and along its borders. The United Nations said the weapons endanger the lives of 1.6 million Iraqis.
"Some areas are so contaminated that people can't live there," Paulusson said.
The problem areas are spread across the country, and a partial survey by U.N. agencies indicates that Iraq has identified 4,000 hazard areas totaling 670 square miles.
Although the number of remaining mines is unclear, an Iraqi report to the United Nations last year said that 20 million antipersonnel mines were sown by Iraq's military alone on the borders and the southern oil fields during the various wars. Many parts of the southern desert along the borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are also littered with cluster bombs, in addition to the land mines laid by Saddam Hussein's forces. The U.N. overview cited a report that 50 million cluster bombs were used in Iraq from 1991 to 2006.
The number of victims from land mines is also unclear because of a lack of an adequate reporting mechanism in Iraq in recent years, Paulusson said.
Iraq became a party to the Ottawa mine-ban convention last year and agreed to clear all areas containing mines and unexploded bombs by 2018. According to the U.N. Development Fund, the country will not meet that deadline any time soon.
Paulusson said that to clear the areas already identified, Iraq would need 19,000 workers over for the next 10 years to do the job. But Iraq has only 300 working on the problem in the entire country - excluding the Kurdish north, which has run its own eradication program since 1993.
The Iraqi environment ministry has pushed to allow civilians to help with the eradication program, saying it is the only way to achieve success quickly. But the military insists it can do the job.