Iraq Facing the Legacy of Landmines and Explosive Remnants of War

by Salomon Schreuder [ United Nations Development Programme ]

In this article the author describes the recent history and current state of mine-action efforts in Iraq. The author argues for a larger focus on these issues and for a comprehensive approach, linking other humanitarian efforts with mine action.

Iraq, the oil-rich country once considered the pearl of the Middle East, is heavily contaminated with ERW1 such as landmines, unexploded ordnance, explosive ordnance and depleted uranium munitions. Scattered throughout major cities and rural areas, ERW threatens the daily lives of individuals and communities, and impedes the delivery of a full spectrum of reconstruction, from humanitarian assistance to infrastructure.

This situation originates from minefields laid during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s—including a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile)-wide minefield belt running along the Iran-Iraq border for about 1,600 kilometers (944 miles)—conflicts between rival ethnic and political parties, military actions of 1990-1991, and the ongoing conflict, which started in 2003.

Image 1
Cluster munitions contaminate large areas in the Basra Governorate. Credit: DDG

The mine/ERW situation was never dealt with by a structured and organized mine-action programme, except in the Kurdistan region, where a successful mine-action programme was implemented during the Oil for Food Programme from 1997 to 2003 with support from Mines Advisory Group and Norwegian People's Aid. The fact that there were no organized mine-action activities in Iraq, excluding those in Kurdistan, resulted in the mine/ERW threat increasing with each successive conflict since the Iran-Iraq War. This article will mostly discuss the situation exclusive of the Kurdistan region.

Magnitude of Mine and ERW Contamination

After Operation Iraqi Freedom and post-conflict reconstruction, an emergency survey was conducted in the north by MAG and in the south by MineTech International, contracted by the United Nations Office of Project Services as part of the Rapid Response Plan. This survey was not very successful as the situation was constantly changing. The Iraq Landmine Impact Survey was launched in 2004, executed by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's Information Management and Mine Action Programs and funded by the U.S. Department of State. The U.N. Development Programme funded the iMMAP team leader for the ILIS with financial support from the European Commission. The ILIS covered 13 governorates, but it had to be halted in May 2006 due to the deteriorating security situation in the remaining five governorates. Meanwhile, several large-scale reconstruction projects were halted due to the contamination in southern Iraq—the most prominent being a power-line rehabilitation project by the Ministry of Electricity and the Rumaila Oilfields project by the Ministry of Oil, both in the Basra Governorate.

Figure 1
Map showing the 13 of 18 governorates covered by the Iraq Landmine Impact Survey. Credit: Charles Conley, iMMAP

As of March 2006, the ILIS revealed 1,622 impacted communities out of more than 12,000 visited, with 3,673 areas suspected as being hazardous. A total of 1,730 square kilometers (663 square miles) of contaminated land was recorded, out of which 518 square kilometers (200 square miles) of contaminated land is in Basra governorate alone. These figures only cover approximately 70 percent of the total area of the country. In the southern part of the country, where the most intensive battles took place, as much as 90 percent of the contaminated land is agricultural land, directly impacting the livelihood of most people in these rural areas. The Iraq Landmine Impact Survey Report, covering 13 of the 18 Iraqi governorates, was completed and has been released recently.

According to the ILIS, 577 recent victims (within the 24 months before the survey) have been recorded. This figure does not reflect a complete picture as there is no effective victim monitoring and recording structure on the ground, while the ILIS records victims solely from impacted communities. Currently, the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Health Organization and the UNDP are at the final preparatory stage to launch a pilot U.N. joint project on victim monitoring in the governorates of Baghdad, Basra and Erbil, with a particular focus on capacity development of, among other things, emergency rooms and civil defense offices to improve a chain of data management and effective utilization of the data. Once it is proven successful, the United Nations plans to expand this pilot project to a fully-fledged programme across the country.

Mine-action Structure in the Government of Iraq

In August 2003, the Mine Action Team of the Office for Weapons Removal and Abatement of the U.S. Department of State, representing the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), established the National Mine Action Authority under the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation. The NMAA is currently in the process of being transferred form the MoPDC to the Ministry of Environment. The NMAA is responsible for strategic planning and budgeting, project coordination, donor relations, setting national mine-action standards, and maintaining national mine-action databases. The NMAA includes a Regional Mine Action Centre based in Basra governorate and is responsible for the southern region of Iraq. The NMAA currently plans to develop two additional Regional Mine Action Centers in central and northern Iraq. In addition, the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency is in the process of being formed to control mine action in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region—Dahuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The IKMAA coordinates with the NMAA but functions independently and reports to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Progress Thus Far

The U.N. Mine Action Service Rapid Response Plan in May 2003 included the deployment of a commercial contractor, MineTech International, for mine clearance in the Basra governorate supported by nongovernmental organizations such as Danish Demining Group, Danish Church Aid and INTERSOS. The CPA Mine Action Team took the lead and it was agreed that the United Nations would provide Technical Advisors for the NMAA/RMAC, bearing in mind that staff members of these organizations had no mine-action experience at all.

The U.N. technical advisory support on the ground had to be revisited, however, after the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 and the subsequent relocation of all U.N. staff to Amman, Jordan. Four months later, United Nations Mine Action Service terminated the Rapid Response Plan and the UNDP became the lead agency for U.N. mine action in Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department continued providing the NMAA/RMAC with technical advisory support through RONCO Consulting Corporation until September 2006 when the UNDP took over this role.

The government of Iraq has been allocating multimillion-dollar budgets every year to the NMAA. Unfortunately, due to the rigidly centralized financial system, the lack of capacity in accounting management and the worsening security situation, most of these budgets have gone unspent for nearly four years. Due to the lack of political support for mine action and the inability of the NMAA to execute its functions, the NMAA did not develop local operational capacities; the limited existing capacity was developed by the Department of State through RONCO and by the U.N. through DDG. In general, this dismal situation lowered donors' confidence in mine-action support for Iraq.

On the other hand, the support for national mine-action that NGOs provide is promising because of the progress with needs-based mine clearance and mine-risk education. RONCO, with funding from the U.S. Department of State, established a national NGOthe Iraq Mine Clearance Organization (IMCO)as well as Iraq Health and Social Care Organization (IHSCO). The UNDP established another Iraqi NGO, the Rafidain Demining Organization, through its contractor DDG, in Basra. These local NGOs have been fully trained and equipped, reaching out to communities through liaison teams and hotlines, to prioritize their operations. Continuous support to such Iraqi NGOs is needed to deepen the impact of needs-based mine clearance and MRE.

The Multi-National ForceIraq, as well as the Iraqi National Defense Force, is clearing areas within their area of responsibility; however, the clearance is not necessarily being done in accordance with the International Mine Action Standards, and no centralized system of recording of clearance exists. The police and military have been focussing on the threat of improvised explosive devices, neglecting mines and UXO. Apart from Kurdistan and the two national NGOs, there is not a national capacity to address the massive threat of mines and UXO.


Lack of political support. High turnover and instability in the government have contributed to a lack of political support for mine action, which in turn affects the interest of the international community. For instance, the Iraqi National Development Strategy refers to "demining" without clear linkages to development issues.

The International Compact for Iraq is a blueprint to define international support to the government of Iraq. Although Iraq is considered to be one of the most mine/ERW contaminated countries in the world and the ICI supports socioeconomic development, the serious threat to the ICI outcomes of mines and ERW is not considered or mentioned at all in the ICI.

Political commitment by the Iraqi government to mine action is a prerequisite for effective and efficient international support in this area. The new line (responsible) ministry will be the Ministry of Environment. If this Ministry has a will to advocate for and work on mine action, it will create a new impetus to overcome the challenge posed by a lack of political support. However, without moral support and financial assistance from donors, the U.N. mine-action family will not be able to work with the government of Iraq and NGOs to address this extremely challenging environment.

Lack of institutional capacity in the government. Uncoordinated clearance, MRE and victim-assistance activities, along with disorganized national databases, can be largely attributed to the lack of institutional capacity of the NMAA. In addition, the government has been seemingly unwilling to mainstream mine action into humanitarian, reconstruction, and development planning and implementation. In the Basra governorate, large-scale reconstruction projects had to be suspended recently due to ERW contamination.

Dreadful security situation. The security situation in Iraq poses serious threats to mine-action operators, although there are some areas where mine-action activities can be effectively executed, such as in the Kurdistan region and deep rural areas of Basra governorate, known as one of the most dangerous governorates in Iraq. It is hoped the security situation will improve to expand mine-action activities to the rest of the country.

The Way Forward

U.N. agencies have been taking extra caution in planning activities in recent years due to limited funding; however, it is slowly becoming a trend to link mine action with other developmental projects to maximize the effectiveness of available funding. For instance, MRE activities have been linked with area-based interventions and other activities under child protection, while mine clearance is linked with agricultural development in southern Iraq.

The country still requires mine-action support from the international community—support that will put a premium on national ownership, sustainability, and mainstreaming mine action into other humanitarian and development activities. This emphasis means that technical advisory support needs to be complemented with management capacity building, while policy advisory support should be provided in tandem with the obligations of the Ottawa Convention.2 It is an encouraging indication that on 15 August 2007, Iraq acceded to the Ottawa Convention, becoming the 155th State Party. This action is expected to encourage the international community to fund urgently needed support.

The treaty will enter into force on 1 February 2008 with Iraq's initial transparency report required under Article 7 to be submitted no later than July 2008. The deadline for the destruction of stockpiles will be 1 February 2012 and the deadline for the destruction of all anti-personnel mines in mined areas under its jurisdiction or control is 1 February 2018.


In Iraq, the destructive and inhumane legacy of mines and ERW deserves stronger advocacy and action. Amidst a surge of foreign assistance in democratization and reconstruction, equal attention should be paid to mine/ERW contamination prevailing in the country. Thousands of victims, especially those who have been maimed and severely disabledcategorized as the most vulnerable patientsneed considerable medical assistance and socioeconomic recovery support. Mine action should be on the same agenda as the rest of reconstruction and development because mine action is an enabling action for livelihood, safe access to health care and schools, reconstruction, and humanitarian activities.

On behalf of UNDP, UNICEF, WHO and UNOPSthe U.N. Mine Action Team for Iraqwe would like to underscore our deep appreciation for the support from donors thus far to help save the lives and livelihood of innocent Iraqi civilians. Bullet


HeadshotSalomon Schreuder is the UNDP Senior Mine Action Advisor, focussing on providing institutional development support to the Iraqi National Mine Action Authority. He studied production engineering and is a veteran in military engineering with 36 years of experience, holding a Joint Staff College qualification. He has been involved in mine action in Iraq for the past seven years.


  1. Editor's Note: Some organizations consider mines and ERW to be two separate entities, since they are regulated by different legal documents (the former by the Ottawa Convention and Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the latter by CCW Protocol V). However, since mines are explosive devices that have similar effects to other ERW and it is often impossible to separate the two during clearance operations, some in the community have adopted a "working definition" (as opposed to a legal one) of ERW in which it is a blanket term that includes mines, UXO, abandoned explosive ordnance and other explosive devices.
  2. Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. 1 October 2007. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, and thus is commonly known as the Ottawa Convention.

Contact Information

Salomon Schreuder
Senior Mine Action Advisor
P.O. Box 941024
16 Majid Al-Edwan Street
Amman 11194 / Jordan
Tel: +962 79 651 4017
Fax: +962 6 560 8331