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Mines and Munitions Pose Threat to Iraqi Civilians - 2003-03-25

U.N. officials are voicing concern about a potential humanitarian crisis arising from the current conflict in Iraq. However, food, water, and medicine shortages are not the only humanitarian relief problems caused by the war.

U.N. officials said they are increasingly concerned about dangers to Iraqi civilians from antipersonnel mines and unexploded bombs.

Iraq is already awash in mines and bombs from previous conflicts, including the Gulf war, battles with the Kurds, and Iraq's long conflict with Iran. But those dangers are believed to be magnifying with every day of conflict.

Martin Barber of the U.N. Mine Action Service said there are reports that defending Iraqi troops are laying new mines to slow the advance of coalition forces. He said there are also worries that coalition warplanes are dropping cluster munitions, which leave many small unexploded bombs scattered about.

"They're a hazard because they can either be lying on the surface or go under the surface. And just the act of touching them with your foot, maybe if you don't see it where you've got grass or it's just covered with sand, for instance, and you tread on it. And unless we do quick mine risk education or education of the local population to warn them of what these things are like, people may see them and think, "oh, that looks interesting," and pick it up. And that, of course, can be fatal," Mr. Barber said.

Mr. Barber said that, with no United Nations or private aid workers operating in the country, it is difficult to judge the scope of the situation. He said the north is known to be what he terms "highly contaminated" with mines and unexploded bombs. But much less is known, he said, of the level of danger from mines and dud bombs in the south and center of the country close to Baghdad.

But Mr. Barber said, if previous experience in places like Afghanistan is anything to go on, the problem will be severe. "But if we look at the Afghanistan experience, we found that wherever there was conflict between two forces which were in more or less fixed positions for a period of time, then you tended to see mines being laid in front of the fixed positions. And, of course, we also saw in Afghanistan as well as in Kosovo the use of cluster munitions by the coalition forces against troop concentrations, and those cluster munitions will inevitably leave a portion of unexploded ordnance, which will need to be dealt with," Mr. Barber said.

Mr. Barber said refugees who try to flee to neighboring countries are in great danger because border areas are heavily mined. And, he added, it is a mistake to believe that mines laid in desert sands pose no threat to civilians.

"What we've seen, though, unfortunately, in the area of southern Iraq and northern Kuwait is that there are quite a number of nomadic populations moving around on camels across the desert. And even in recent months, before the current fighting started, there were continuous casualties in that area from nomadic people encountering unexploded ordnance and land mines," he said.

The most dangerous legacy, said Mr. Barber, may be from any urban fighting. He said Baghdad may become much like Beirut, which was littered with unexploded bombs and mines for years after the conflict there was over.