Land mine experts from the United States are in Iraq beginning the task of removing what could be as many as 10,000 land mines from throughout the country. Eventually, Iraqis will be trained and land mine removal will become their task. A team of land mine experts from the State Department have been using specially trained dogs and metal detectors to carefully search for some of the last life-threatening remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Driving north towards Baghdad one cannot help but notice a periodic series of dirt mounds that stand about two-and-a-half meters high and are about 50 to 100 meters long.
The mounds are located just off the main highway leading into Baghdad from Basra. Off to the side of the road are some houses and farms with people working in the fields and children playing nearby. To the untrained eye the mounds look like the work of farmers readying their crops for planting. But these mounds are part of a field of land mines.
Experts with the State Department estimate there could be as many as 10,000 land mines throughout Iraq and say in northern Iraq, alone, there are 3,200 land mine fields.
That's why a team of demining experts with the State Department have arrived in Iraq to begin the long and arduous job of removing the last vestiges of Saddam Hussein's threat to his own people.
Daniel Layton is one of the top experts on land mines for the U.S. government and was brought to Iraq from Bosnia where thousands of land mines have been discovered.
He says his team has been building a data base on mines in Iraq as a first step toward their removal. "In Bosnia, for instance, we were given the maps from both sides, compared them and built them into a data base whereby we could then begin to get an idea of where to look," he says. "But, at the same time, we also talked to locals who know what the situation is. We also look at casualty situations, maybe dead animals might be involved in it. And we begin what's called a general survey, or level one survey, to determine the extent and then we put out marking teams."
Mr. Layton says building a national data base is critical to the safety of communities. For instance, he says the data would be imperative for communities that want to build roads or for people wanting to build houses and businesses.
In Iraq, Mr. Layton says there will be great danger to families returning to their communities now that the regime of Saddam Hussein has been ousted. The land mine expert says it is believed the entire Iraq-Iran border has been mined by the Iraqis.
The mines seen on the road from Basra to Baghdad were freshly planted before U.S. troops attacked Iraq. Land mine expert and State Department Demining Team expert Tom McCormick says the land mines being found in Iraq are 20 years old in their design and were purchased from abroad. "The ones we're finding here are from Italy," he says. "They're either anti-personnel or anti-tank, anti vehicle land mines."
Mr. McCormick says mines can remain dangerous for 30 or more years and as time passes he says even anti-tank mines can be set off by the weight of a person. "The anti-tanks we're finding here, if they've come out of the factory, it's between four and six hundred pounds of pressure to set them off," he says. "But, after they've been in the sun a while it starts deteriorating. It goes down to like 200. So, a person like myself would probably be able to set one off if its been out there a while."
One of the greatest dangers is children innocently playing in fields loaded with land mines, unaware of the danger beneath them. But in Iraq, after years of military and political oppression, even small children have become surprisingly well-educated according to land mine expert Leslie Brown, who says Iraqi children have helped demining teams locate unexploded land mines. "It's obvious to me these children have a lot of experience with this bad side of life," she says. "And because of that experience they tend to be very careful. Some of them are quite amazing. Obviously some of them have done something quite dangerous in the past to get that kind of intelligence. But, yes, they come up and pointed out where mines are, what condition they're in, what kind they are, what they do when they go off, and it's quite amazing."
Demining is not an easy task that can be done quickly. But in the end it will be Iraqis who will assume the responsibility of cleansing their country of Saddam Hussein's legacy of war and weapons. U.S. experts here in Iraq say after a year of training, the dangerous job of land mine removal will be completely handed over to the Iraqis.