Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Iraq's Landmines, Old and New

Two stories today feature landmines in Iraq, of both the physically explosive and the metaphorical kind. As is the nature of landmines, they spell continuing troubles for Iraqis.

The explosive ones are what's left of the millions of mines left in the ground by Saddam Hussein to defend Iraq against Iranian forces 1980-1988, as well as the US-led "coalition" invasions of 1991 and 2003. Add to those the millions of cluster munitions dropped in Iraq by the US in 1991. As the report from McClatchy notes:

The U.N. estimates that during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, American planes dropped 54 million "cluster bombs," small, grenade-like explosives scattered from a single shell. Most fell in southern and central Iraq.

Deputy Environment Minister Kamal Latif said that an estimated 16 percent of those cluster bombs — more than 8 million — failed to explode and now litter the ground. They rest on top of 25 million landmines that the late dictator Saddam Hussein planted during Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s and before the Gulf War and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

And let's not forget that Iraqis are hardly alone in this horrible predicament. The Israeli air force dropped hundreds of thousands of these munitions - furnished to them, of course, by US arms manufacturers, courtesy of your tax dollars - on Lebanon in the summer 2006 war. It's common for little kids to pick up the bomblets, thinking to play with them, only to be maimed or killed. And while we're on the subject, let's also not forget that the US also left (is leaving) behind in Iraq the remains of tons of ordnance containing depleted uranium, to which a number of experts have attributed a consequent spike in cancers and blood diseases among US veterans and Iraqis.

According to the report, every day, at least one Iraqi loses life or a limb to unexploded ordnance. And women and girls seem to be especially victimized by this. Once they suffer a disfiguring injury, they're considered unmarriageable - hence, of little worth - so are sent back into the minefields since they've been rendered expendable. Poverty is now so deep and endemic across the countryside that locals are actually trying to harvest areas where unexploded stuff is to be found, hoping to salvage it for sale in order to support their families. Often enough, the buyers have links to the government's mine-clearing operations, but sell the stuff to "insurgents," who can then use it to make bombs to blow up Iraq army or police - or US troops.

All of this, of course, renders the situation even more unbearable for the Iraqi government, which is both trying to deal with the health consequences (even as Iraq's rural health system is failing) and also trying to stop these sales. Hence, the government has stopped its mine-clearing operations altogether.

The other landmines to which I refered above are metaphorical, and of an altogether different nature, but perhaps equally dangerous especially to Iraq's future. The Kurds have just begun to export their oil northward, even though no oil deal has been worked out between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad. Quite simply, the central government is starved for funds and expects to get some share of the proceeds, but it is not pleased at all with how this is turning out. At some point, it will surely try to impose its control on the arrangement, but the precedent for Kurdish initiative and control has now been set, and the Kurds will be none too quick to relinquish it. Add this new ingredient to the long-simmering cauldron of Arab-Kurd enmity in Iraq. With the oil issue unresolved, as well as Kirkuk, and the Kurds still hoping to spread their territorial control in Nineveh and Diyala provinces . . . the cauldron can be brought to a boil very quickly.

And US troops can be caught in the middle, or else be witness to a real mess as they depart.

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