After the Battle: A Warning From Mosul

Organised combat in Iraq’s second city ended more than a year ago, but the city remains crippled by deadly munitions that still lie hidden beneath huge mounds of rubble.

By Pehr Lodhammar
Mr. Lodhammar leads the United Nations mine-clearing effort in Iraq

17 September 2018

Mosul, Iraq — As the calamitous civil war next door in Syria grinds on toward a final battle in Idlib, with an unthinkably tragic end in sight, it’s worth taking a look farther east, at this shattered Iraqi city. Today, Mosul stands as a measure of how difficult “recovery” can be in this part of the world, even after the gunfire stops.

Here, more than a year after the formal end of fighting that drove out the Islamic State’s fighters, the path to recovery runs literally through a three-dimensional minefield with the dangers of war still present everywhere.

Explosive hazards implanted by the Islamic State, too dangerous and numerous to deactivate, still strew destruction, allowing the terrorist group to continue fighting in absentia and on the cheap. Their strategy has been, in a word, shrewd: Retreat from Mosul only after making life unlivable by making infrastructure all but impossible to fix.

So this remains a city of debris, nearly seven million tons worth, much of it concealing improvised explosive devices — I.E.D.s — and conventional ammunition that failed to detonate. Yes, an international team of experts is working to defuse both types of ordnance. But real security is still distant, given the slow pace at which we can clear the hazards with minimal funding and too few experts. So, the terror planted here by terrorists continues to stifle the economy and society in Iraq’s second city.

I.E.D.s are everywhere — lethal needles placed in haystacks of uncleared rubble, some triggered by infrared sensors, some by tripwires.

Teams like ours from the United Nations Mine Action Service (Unmas) find the needles, but the going is slow: They can never be sure how many still lie there as they assess the risk, probe, and render safe the armaments that they find.

The work takes a practiced eye and a delicate touch. Tools range from hook-and-line kits used to disarm I.E.D.s to armored heavy equipment that can help dispose of 500-pound bombs buried under several feet of debris. Both tasks take time, lots of it. At the present pace, clearing just Mosul is expected to take teams like ours at least 10 more years.

Sometimes the I.E.D.s provide sad and grisly evidence of Islamic State tactics. More than once, our teams in Mosul have found suicide belts among the corpses of unwilling human shields, deployed by the terrorists to cover their retreat. The victims included children, some not more than 10 years old. After each new discovery, heavy equipment on the scene to clear the site of explosive hazards would stop work to allow the government to recover, identify and return the remains for proper burial.

For the moment, the explosive hazard “footprint” left by the Islamic State still covers one-third of Iraq — an area the size of New York State — and rebuilding much of that area remains at a near standstill because destroyed or degraded infrastructure cannot be repaired until the hazards are cleared.

To be sure, there have been some strides forward. In a recent 12-month period, Unmas teams alone (there are others working to clear Mosul as well) assessed and cleared 1,248 critical sites. For example, highly trained divers worked in near zero visibility and against a strong current for more than 17 hours to remove two submerged I.E.D.s from one bridge. That allowed the span to be repaired over the next two months, rendering nearby Falluja’s maternity hospital accessible again in five minutes of travel instead of two hours.

Is another $5 billion spent over 10 years enough to free Iraq of explosive hazards? Perhaps, but nobody can be sure. Working at our current pace, Unmas in Iraq can expect an unfunded shortfall of $170 million for 2018 alone, despite generous support from 11 countries that make voluntary contributions to the United Nations, our sole source of funding.

For the international community at large, one reason to step up efforts to accomplish more, and quicken the pace, should be clear: Delaying stabilization works to the Islamic State’s advantage and against Iraq’s people and efforts to pacify the region. Stabilization can ultimately deprive terrorists of a safe haven, but it can’t begin without the clearance of deadly hazards.

As soon as areas are cleared, work crews from other agencies — notably the United Nations Development Program — can seamlessly move in to make stabilization a bricks-and-motor proposition, even here in parts of devastated Mosul. The repaired Al Qasoor Water Treatment Plant now supplies clean and safe water to more than 300,000 people. In Nineveh Province, clearance work has allowed the High Court to access deeds that validate land claims of residents seeking return.

Hanging in the balance is the future of Iraq, already a middle-income country and primed for recovery. Each of the 1.9 million displaced persons still waiting to return safely home to resume a normal life in a normal community bolsters Iraq’s own chances for a turnaround. But not before their homes are free of hazards, the roads are safe to travel, the power works, and basic services are restored.

After open combat in Idlib ends, the recovery needed to achieve true pacification among bitter enemies and terrorist renegades will begin. As in Mosul, we expect I.E.D.s and unexploded munitions to complicate and challenge a recovery that is long, difficult and contested by enemies of reconciliation operating as they do here — hide in plain sight and, when they choose, fight from shadows.

Without a restoration of normalcy, the terrorists can still “win from home” if we let them.

Pehr Lodhammar is the senior program manager of the United Nations Mine Action Service in Iraq.

Additional Info

  • Agency: UNMAS

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