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Destroying the "Mother of All Arsenals": Captured Enemy Ammunition Operations in Iraq

Updated Wednesday, 18-Sep-2013 09:17:55 EDT

Although the much-publicized weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq, less has been said about what munitions were found there, the hazards they present or the efforts of Coalition Forces to remove the stockpiles. This article gives a first-hand view of the perils in Iraq.

On 20 March 2003, United States and Coalition Forces crossed the border into Iraq, initiating ground combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Almost immediately, they encountered vast stockpiles of conventional Iraqi munitions. Much of the ammunition was in pristine condition, while large amounts of other ordnance had been looted, scavenged or damaged during combat operations. It soon became apparent that a major effort would be required to secure and dispose of these stockpiles.

A looted ammunition storage magazine south of Mosul (October 2003).

Assessing and Managing the Problem

The discovery of these "ammo dumps" was not unexpected. Preparations to deal with captured enemy ammunition (CEA) were part of the initial campaign planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom that started in October 2002. What was not appreciated until much later in 2003 was the scope of the problem. Ground commanders quickly put together plans and manpower in an attempt to secure or destroy the enormous caches of ammunition their units were encountering. These well-intentioned efforts would eventually produce mixed results and, in some instances, amplify the problem.

Increased awareness but uncertainty of the magnitude of the CEA problem resulted in the United States Army Corps of Engineers requesting to conduct an assessment in June/July 2003 to determine if their existing munitions remediation programs could bring aid. Specifically, Combined Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF-7) sought assistance in the munitions collection process, the transportation of the ordnance to disposal areas and the operation of the demolition sites themselves.

Due to the perceived urgency of the situation, CJTF-7 wanted a capability in place within 30 days of the assessment to begin reducing or replacing military personnel and equipment engaged in the CEA mission (now renamed the Coalition Munitions Clearance program). Combined Joint Task Force 7—the "customer"—wanted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its contractors to provide a "cradle-to-grave" service that could eventually be transferred over to Iraqi authorities.

Funding was provided to the Corps of Engineers on 28 July 2003 to commence CEA operations. USACE awarded several contracts on 8 Aug. 2003—one to the Parsons Corporation (Pasadena, Calif.) for $80 million (U.S.) to provide the logistical support for the overall effort, and three contracts worth $67 million each to the following unexploded ordnance contractors: Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technologies (Knoxville, Tenn.), Tetra Tech-Foster Wheeler (Pasadena, Calif.), and USA Environmental, Inc. (Tampa, Fla.). The scope of work for the contractors included the following requirements:

  • Manage ammunition supply points/collection points (ASP/CP).
  • Perform demolition of unserviceable munitions.
  • Perform demolition of priority munitions as identified by CJTF-7.
  • Perform transportation of CEA from caches to ammunition supply points/collection points or demolition areas as required and transport prepared demolition loads of CEA from ASP/CP to the demolition area.
  • Perform surface unexploded ordnance clearances, booby trap clearances, disablement of unconventional warfare devices, site investigations, evaluations and responses in support of the CEA mission.
  • Provide security for ASP/CP, transportation operations, demolition areas and living areas as needed.
  • Perform minor construction at demolition areas and ASP/CP as required to support the CEA mission.
  • Perform the above objectives at multiple sites in separate geographic areas simultaneously.

Contractors and USACE personnel began mobilizing immediately following the contract award, and advance parties arrived in Iraq on 28 Aug. 2003. During this time period, a decision was made to centralize CEA operations in Baghdad, alongside the CJTF-7 Engineer Cell (C-7) at Camp Victory near Baghdad International Airport. It was further decided that field operations would be based in six former regional Iraqi ammunition depots. Tetra Tech was tasked with establishing operations in the southern part of Iraq, while EOD Technologies occupied two locations in the central part of the country. USA Environmental set up its operations at two sites north of Baghdad—one in the Sunni Triangle and one south of Mosul. The initial mission objectives for this contractor workforce were the following:

  • Reduce and eventually replace active military forces with USACE and contractor assets.
  • Provide "cradle-to-grave" CEA support services.
  • Maximize use of Iraqi labor and assets.
  • Be self-sufficient by January 2004.
  • Facilitate transfer of operations to the Iraqis.

Munitions disposal commenced with EOD Technologies conducting a symbolic demolition operation on 11 Sept. 2003, followed by USAE destroying 30 SA-7 Strela man-portable surface-to-air missiles on 20 Sept. 2003. Since that time, munitions disposal operations—"demo shots"—have been conducted several days a week at the six sites. Depending on weather conditions and local labor, demo shots sometimes exceeded 150 tons per site.

Contracting Iraqi labor forces to assist in sorting, storing and destroying ammunitions increased the production capacity of each site significantly. Often the Iraqi laborers worked at these depots at tremendous personal risk from insurgent threats.

Types of Munitions

CEA contractors in Iraq found stockpiles consisting of every conceivable type of ammunition—from sea mines and naval ordnance in the south of the country to small arms, hand grenades, landmines, artillery and tank ammunition, rockets, and guided missiles all across the country. Much of this ammunition was virtually new, while large quantities were unserviceable and exhibited varying degrees of deterioration. An estimated 65 percent of the ammunition would require demilitarization due to its condition.

Several "surprises" confronted CEA contractors when they entered the storage sites; many contractors were dismayed at the age and types of munitions encountered. Some of Saddam Hussein’s ordnance stores contained ammunition dated from 1944. For example, a large stockpile of bombs discovered in northern Iraq contained some FAB-5000 M54, 5,000-kilogram bombs, aerially-delivered munitions deployed only from Tu-16 and Tu-95 bombers, which were not found in the Iraqi inventory.

A Russian FAB-5000 M54 high-explosive bomb in the vicinity of Zakho, northern Iraq (August 2004).

Another eye-opener for contractors was the large number of countries that had supplied Saddam’s arsenal—including Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, France, Italy, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the former Yugoslavia. Munitions from at least 19 nations were uncovered during the inventories of the depots and caches.

Although the CEA depots established an extremely productive routine, the task confronting the 50 UXO contractors at each site was formidable. In October 2003, Coalition Forces reported they had located 6,444 munitions caches, of which 682 remained to be removed or destroyed. Furthermore, over 100 of the remaining sites were deemed to be large (i.e., 100 munitions storage bunkers or warehouses in each). Coalition Forces recovered the cache sites and delivered the munitions to the regional depots for storage or destruction. Beginning in December 2003, CEA contractors accompanied by either military units or private armed security forces ventured out from their depots and destroyed cache sites in place or relocated the ordnance to their depots for storage pending future disposal. Between September 2003 and April 2004, the contractor workforce (which by then also included Environmental Consulting Corporation of Burlingame, Calif., and Zapata Engineering of Charlotte, N.C.) secured over 87,000 tons and destroyed almost 220,000 tons of munitions.

The F-350 Ford pickup truck in which three security subcontractors died when the vehicle was struck by an IED consisting of an artillery projectile (25 April 2004).

Risk to Personnel

All this work was accomplished at considerable personal jeopardy to personnel. The most significant threat currently hindering all reconstruction efforts is a lack of security. CEA contractors were most at risk while traveling between sites. These movements were most often conducted in ground vehicle convoys. While traveling in convoy, the contractors were usually escorted by either military personnel or armed private security forces. Regardless, insurgent forces launched attacks and ambushes against these convoys. The most common methods of attack were roadside improvised explosive devices and small arms fire. Occasionally, the convoys would be attacked by vehicle-borne IEDs. As of the writing of this article, five CEA contractors have been killed in such attacks.1–5

To counter the threat of attack, Parsons Corporation bought factory-armored Ford Excursions; however, USACE encouraged them to purchase mine-resistant vehicles from South Africa. MECHEM and Regis Trading were contracted to provide refurbished Casspirs and Mambas (respectively) to transport UXO and security personnel from site to site. As of the writing of this article, over 40 contractors involved in CEA operations have survived death or serious injury from IEDs and small arms fire due to the protection afforded by the Casspirs, Mambas and armored Excursions.

Indirect-fire weapons such as rockets and mortars are another form of insurgent attack. Many attacks mimic tactics employed in Afghanistan, where rockets are fired from improvised launchers with some incorporating a time-delay firing device to allow the insurgents to escape any Coalition counterfire. These attacks were common; between October 2003 and September 2004, Camp Victory (where the CEA operation was based) was struck 18 times.

A Casspir mine-resistant vehicle after it was hit by a vehicle-borne IED in the Sunni Triangle (December 2004).

Chinese 107-mm rockets discovered in improvised firing positions and aimed at USA Environmental’s regional depot south of Mosul (February 2004).

One final, less frequent method of attack against CEA operations was direct assault against a worksite, and only one site endured a sustained ground attack by insurgent forces. On 10 April 2004, a large CEA cache site south of Mosul was attacked by a force of approximately 12 insurgents firing 57-mm rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The ensuing firefight lasted about 45 minutes, wounding one American and two Kurds. Exact casualties to the attacking force are unknown.

A looted ammunition magazine in northern Iraq. The spaghetti-like material in the foreground is scattered artillery propellant (October 2003).

Safety Considerations

It should come as no surprise that safety is a crucial issue when managing munitions and explosives. While conducting CEA operations, particular hazards were encountered when personnel were exposed to propellant, loose mortar fuses and munitions containing white phosphorous. The following comments are intended as "lessons learned" to promote a better understanding of munitions disposal and provide information related to safety in mine and UXO clearance operations. Hopefully, the newly elected government in Iraq will lead to a more stable and secure environment, allowing humanitarian and relief organizations to return. As these new officials travel about Iraq, they will be confronted with the hazards from explosive remnants of war.

A damaged mortar projectile discovered that has crusted-over white phosphorus exuding from it (October 2003).

Although thought by many as a relatively small hazard, propellant from artillery and tank ammunition proved to be a source of several incidents during operations in Iraq. These occurrences were due to the scavenged munitions storage areas that contained loose and scattered propellant. The stabilizer in the propellant deteriorated and rendered the material extremely susceptible to the high temperatures in the country. Several incidents of spontaneous combustion occurred that resulted in personnel injuries and property loss.

Several types of foreign mortar fuses proved especially sensitive to handling, whether they were loose or packaged. One incident resulted in the death of an Iraqi laborer when he mishandled a loose fuse and it detonated. Subsequently, CEA contractors were instructed to use extreme care when handling any variety of mortar fuses that did not have a positive safety pin blocking the firing mechanism.

A typical ordnance disposal operation depicting the placement of munitions, donor material and plastic explosive initiation charges (December 2003).

While propellant and mortar fuses are not normally considered to be overly dangerous ordnance items, white phosphorous has always been known to be an extremely hazardous item to manage. Its inherent nature, combined with the high temperatures in Iraq, which liquefied the material during daylight working hours, prompted a review of safety procedures but, unfortunately, was not enough to prevent at least one serious incident.

Adding to the inherent munitions hazards were many well-intentioned attempts to assist in the reduction of ammunitions scattered throughout the country. Many improperly trained combat forces attempted to destroy munitions stores by a procedure called "drop and pop"—an explosive charge was quickly assembled, ignited and randomly placed (or thrown) into an ammunition storage structure. The resulting explosion would destroy approximately 20 percent of the munitions, but the remainder would be scattered throughout the area, presenting a formidable UXO cleanup problem. Additionally, one well-meaning organization attempted to destroy stockpiles of ammunition but unfortunately spread almost 50 pounds of toxic material over the demolition area due to depleted uranium in the missile fragmentation warheads.

Partially disassembled Russian 100-mm high-explosive anti-tank projectiles discovered with both the copper shape charge cone and the explosives removed (October 2003).

When properly trained and experienced personnel are utilized in munitions disposal operations, munitions with unique hazards can be identified and separated for future disposition. During CEA operations in Iraq, contractors destroyed on average approximately 1 ton of assorted explosive ordnance with properly positioned donor material and one block of C4 explosives (1.25 pounds).

Finally, another organization complicated the securing and disposal of ordnance by instructing local Iraqis on how to disassemble certain munitions to recover the valuable components, such as brass rotating bands, copper shape-charge cones and, in some cases, the explosive material. This was done to start a "cottage industry" in order to provide a source of income for unemployed Iraqis. The precious metal was then sold to scrap dealers.

A Russian 122-mm high-explosive projectile discovered with explosives that have exuded from the fuse cavity (October 2003).

Environmental Threats

The environment also poses hazards to those not familiar with the area. As most would expect, the temperature in Iraq during the summer months can be extremely dangerous, particularly to personnel working outdoors dealing with explosives, propellants and metal objects. During July and August, average daily temperatures can range from 110 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit (43 to 52 degrees Celsius). Propellant becomes very unstable at these temperatures, metal-cased ordnance becomes extremely hot to handle without gloves, and in some instances, explosives in munitions begin to soften and exude. Large amounts of water were essential in CEA operations during the hottest part of the year, not only for hydration, but also in the event of a leakage of white phosphorous munitions.

Another environmental factor to contend with in Iraq is leishmaniasis, which is an infection in both humans and animals transmitted by sand flies (not fleas). Between August 2002 and February 2004, at least 522 cases of leishmaniasis were reported among U.S. military personnel who had served in southwest and central Asia. While treatment is available for this disease, it is far less painful and inconvenient to use N, N-diethylm-toluamide (DEET) lotion or permethrin repellent to avoid being bitten by a sand fly.

Turkish trucks destroyed by insurgents at a rest stop south of Mosul. The trucks were scheduled to pick up CEA at a remote cache site (April 2004).  

Other environmental factors to contend with in Iraq are snakes and scorpions. There are five types of poisonous snakes indigenous to the country, several of which have venom that is fatal to humans. Of relevance to CEA operations is the fact that both snakes and scorpions are fond of shading themselves in stacks of munitions both outdoors and in ammunition bunkers and warehouses. No fatalities have occurred as a result of encounters, but there have been instances in which workers have required medical assistance after a scorpion sting.


Prior to the current conflict, the Iraqi infrastructure was well-established with an extremely capable road network. Many supplies were shipped from Kuwait, as well as some from Jordan as the intensity of the insurgency increased. The danger of transporting supplies that were obviously destined for Coalition Forces or civilian contractors created a very tenuous supply system. Many Iraqi, Turkish and Pakistani truckers were killed, injured or scared away because they were aiding the reconstruction of Iraq in the post-Saddam era. This situation has made supplying CEA operations a formidable challenge.

A typical "demo shot" at one of the USA Environmental regional CEA depots. This particular shot disposed of approximately 175 tons of CEA.

Much has been written and discussed about the amount of ammunition that has not been secured in Iraq; however, little has been mentioned about the civilian CEA contractors who have accomplished a task never before attempted under fire. Their efforts have removed thousands of potential IEDs and weapons from the hands of the insurgents, protecting Coalition Forces and innocent Iraqis who simply want to live free after the oppressive Hussein regime.

In addition, by undertaking the CEA mission, the U.S. government has demonstrated its support in eliminating the hazards of explosive remnants of war. The United States will undoubtedly continue in this role as it moves forward to implement the State Department’s new Weapons Removal and Abatement Services contract. These U.S. efforts will continue to properly dispose of explosive hazards and in the process protect not only innocent civilians, but also the global environment.

*All photos courtesy of COL (Ret.) Zahaczewsky.


George Zahaczewsky was the program manager for USA Environmental’s operations in Iraq in 2003–2004, where he oversaw the establishment of two CEA depots and managed the operations of numerous mobile teams that collected or destroyed CEA and UXO. In 2002, George retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after 30 years of service, having spent his last six years at the Pentagon as the Defense Department’s lead for humanitarian demining research and development. He now works as an independent consultant.


  1. Associated Press. (27 April 2004) "Oregon Worker Killed in Iraq."
  2. Associated Press. (28 April 2004) "Civilian Worker: Roadside Bomb in Iraq Kills Port Orchard Man."
  3. Cha, Ariana E. (14 Nov, 2003) "Peril Follows Contractors in Iraq." Washington Post (p. A.01).
  4. Tims, Dana. (26 April 2004) "The Weekend Death of an Oregon Man Highlights the Dangerous Duties being Carried Out by Growing Numbers of Private Security Contractors in Iraq." The Oregonian.
  5. Zeleny, Jeff. (2 Nov, 2005) "Obama-Lugar Proposal Targets Stockpiles of Conventional Weapons." Chicago Tribune. Accessed Nov. 9, 2005.

Contact Information

George Zahaczewsky
8607 Gateshead Road
Alexandria, VA 22309-4018
Tel: +1 703 780 6586