More than 5.8 million displaced people have fled their homes since the recent outbreak of conflict in Iraq in 2014.
Military operations and heavy aerial attacks have resulted in explosive hazard contamination, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed during the ISIL occupation continue to hamper humanitarian access and pose a serious threat to the returning population.
The scale, complexity and density of explosive contamination is on an unprecedented and previously unseen scale. The explosive contamination encountered ranges from conventional ammunition that has been fired but has failed to function to complex IEDs that have been placed individually or as part of extensive belts. All represent great challenges for the teams carrying out survey and clearance.
Addressing the threat from explosive hazards in liberated areas saves lives and enables critical humanitarian, stabilization and development initiatives to support the Government of Iraq.
Delayed removal of explosive hazards compromises the ability for those who have been displaced to return, as well as for the Government of Iraq and the international community to undertake critical post-conflict interventions.
UNMAS Iraq was formally established in June 2015, at the request of the United Nations in Iraq, to lead the UN efforts in collaboration with the Government to mitigate explosive threats in the country, as well as to support capacity enhancement of national and regional mine action authorities. The work carried out by civilian operators complements the work already undertaken by the Ministry of Defence Iraqi Security Forces, and the Ministry of Interior Local Police and Civil Defence .
The UNMAS Iraq programme focuses on enabling humanitarian and stabilization interventions to support the safe and dignified return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to areas previously under ISIL control. This specifically includes the following priority areas:
- Provide explosive hazard management response in support of humanitarian and stabilization efforts
- Deliver risk education at the community level and national/regional level
- Enhance Government entities’ capacity to manage, regulate and coordinate an explosive hazard management response.
Due to the nature of threats posed by explosive hazards, UNMAS teams are among the first responders allowing the humanitarian community and local authorities to intervene quickly and efficiently to help civilians.
Considering the levels of contamination reported in liberated areas, displaced people returning home require the Government of Iraq, UNMAS and mine action operators to continue to survey, mark and clear areas to enable rehabilitation of key infrastructure such as roads, power lines, water treatment plants, schools and hospitals permitting access to basic services. Risk education has also been provided to IDPs and to displaced people who have returned home. UNMAS and its partners reach people through direct sessions and digital media campaigns to provide accurate information on the presence of explosive hazards and what to do if they encounter a suspected dangerous item. Risk education materials vary depending on the audience and time of year. During Ramadan, messaging was placed on water bottles and packages of dates to hand out to people on the move. UNMAS, in coordination with the Kurdish national authority, prepared a set of safety messages for Erbil International Airport targeting those who came from abroad during summer months to visit family.
Additionally, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Handicap International (HI) and UNMAS jointly developed three video clips to be used on screens within the camps, where available, and via digital media platforms.
When Fallujah, a city in the Iraqi province of Al-Anbar was officially announced liberated from ISIL, UNMAS deployed an emergency response capacity for removal of identified explosive hazards, including IEDs, in response to UN stabilization priorities.
The explosive hazard management activities have enabled the reconstruction and access to key infrastructure such as the Fallujah new bridge, which is used by thousands of commercial and private vehicles every day. This bridge was destroyed and 44 IEDs were found around the area, with a total of 380-400kg homemade explosives. The IEDs on and under the bridge were cleared, allowing it to be repaired.
This bridge is the only connection between Baghdad and Al-Anbar Province through Fallujah and is of high importance for the economy of the province. In a one-hour period in June 2017, 954 cars, 341 small trucks, 305 pick-up trucks, 219 commercial large trucks and 102 pedestrians crossed over the bridge.
Most recently, through clearance of areas that were suspected to have IEDs, UNMAS enabled engineers to safely access and repair the fibre optic cable that runs from East Fallujah towards Baghdad.
When the cable was initially accessed, the cable engineers introduced a lazer beam to determine the next break that required repairing. UNMAS then cleared a box around the location of the broken cable to allow mechanical excavation to take place in order for the engineers to examine the cable. The lazer was then re-introduced to determine the subsequent breaks in the cable.
On 15 October 2017, the Fallujah Communications Center opened, leading to the provision of 3,000 phone and internet services within the city of Fallujah, which was made possible through the repair of the fiber optic cable.
The fuel station near the entrance to Fallujah city was closed for three years due to the conflict and heavy IED contamination. 28 IEDs were neutralized and removed, and another five destroyed in-situ, with a total of 435 kg of homemade explosives.
One month after its clearance, the government-owned fuel station was able to operate again. Today, it services over 300 vehicles a day with 12 pumps, facilitating the safe journeys of hundreds of daily travellers. 10,000 litres of fuel and 21,000 litres of diesel are sold on average every day.
“We had almost lost all hope to return [to our jobs]. We expected that the station would be blown up because of how difficult it would be to clear all the contamination from it. You cleared it in a way that gave us our jobs back.” Mr. Ali, the Station Manager. Fifteen workers and five administrative staff are employed at the station, improving the living conditions of their families (totalling 220 individuals) .
As soon as areas in Mosul became accessible, UNMAS teams conducted explosive hazard assessments to provide safe access for humanitarian actors. When UNMAS first commenced work in western Mosul, assessment teams and implementing partners encountered unprecedented amounts of IEDs. They found hospitals, bridges, schools and water treatment plants contaminated with IEDs left behind by ISIL. The IEDs, until removed, prevented the rehabilitation of the facilities to provide clean water, electricity and health services to the community.
One of the first infrastructures cleared by UNMAS teams was the Al-Shifa Hospital Complex in West Mosul. The hospital, which used to be one of the most modern hospitals in Iraq and dates back to the 1930s, is reported to have been used as ISIL’s headquarters in West Mosul and as a result suffered severe damage.
The complex includes a dozen hospitals (surgery, maternity, obstetrics, fertility, training and oncology), clinics and staff quarters, a blood bank, a burn and plastic surgery unit, and an X-ray unit. Other infrastructures are currently compensating for the loss of this hospital complex and the pressure on surrounding hospitals is enormous.
UNMAS found and cleared over 2,500 explosive hazard items ranging from improvised hand grenades to missiles.
This intervention enabled the Ministry of Health to remove vital hospital equipment and relocate it to Al-Khansa hospital in East Mosul to prevent looting. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Health plan to fully rehabilitate and furnish the maternity section, burns unit, X-ray unit and the fertility centre within the complex.
UNMAS additional interventions include delivering training about explosive hazards to ‘cash for work’ contractors who will clear up. UNMAS also provides advice and information to UNDP's engineers who visit the hospital to ensure they conduct their assessment safely.
Al-Khansa hospital, one of the largest hospitals in Mosul, was another key infrastructure site to be cleared from explosive hazards. The hospital was burned and looted, leaving it in need of much rehabilitation. At the same time, IEDs were suspected to be present in different parts of the hospital. The health facility has been made inaccessible to the population who was deprived from hospital cares for several months.
Following UNMAS intervention, UNDP has started rehabilitation work on the hospital. Al-Khansa serves as the main provider for maternity and paediatric care for the region. It is estimated that 500,000 women, girls, boys and men will benefit from improved healthcare services as a result of the rehabilitation of this facility.
The work of the Ministry of Justice is fundamental for building the foundation for long term stability and development in Iraq. Clearing the High Court in West Mosul from explosive hazards was a priority for the ministry and will benefit Ninewa province as well as the justice system in the country.
An explosive hazard assessment in August 2017 identified a significant number of explosive hazards, including 44 suicide belts and vests, nine IED charges and 64 switches, 231 mortar rounds, 48 rockets, 72 air-dropped improvised munitions, 220 fuses and 109 grenades.
UNMAS intervention enabled UNDP to begin rehabilitation. Access gained following the assessment led to land deeds being found, which has significant implication for the returning populations, providing them with legal proof of ownership of their property.
Following the battle for Mosul, Al Qaysoor Water Treatment Plant was not functional. More than 300,000 people were deprived from clean and safe water, which had dramatic health consequences for the people who voluntarily or involuntarily stayed during the conflict, as well as returning displaced.
UNMAS was able to clear the land contaminated with explosive hazards, enabling engineers to safely access and rehabilitate the water treatment plant which is now providing safe water to 34 neighbourhoods in eastern Mosul, which represents 1/6 of the city.
In Mosul, more than 24 million square metres were searched and cleared allowing stabilization activities to begin, and enabling families to return home and resume their lives .
The Fine Arts school in eastern Mosul, which had been closed for several months, recently re-opened after being cleared of explosive hazards by UNMAS implementing partners. Approximately 900 students are currently studying at the university, but much of it is destroyed and needs to be rebuilt or have equipment replaced.
The scale, scope and complexity of the explosive contamination in liberated areas is significant, and exceeds existing and available national explosive hazard management capacities. The complex IED fabrication in Iraq is unprecedented, with security forces and civilians suffering heavy losses as a result of the widespread use of these devices. This previously unseen scale and complexity of contamination requires a comprehensive explosive hazard management response as a first step to address the problem before full-fledged humanitarian, stabilization and development assistance efforts can proceed. UNMAS has been working with the Government of Iraq to create conditions to increase the number of civilian operators permitting for accelerated clearance in liberated areas. In western Mosul, UNMAS has already cleared over 25,000 items. As removal of explosive hazards accelerates, the issue of growing stockpiles becomes increasingly prominent as non-military entities are not allowed to utilize explosives, meaning they cannot destroy items as they clear them. Near Hawija, UNMAS was recently shown a stockpile of over 12,000 items of explosive remnants of war and IEDs that had been located and removed by the police and civil defense. We commend the Government of Iraq for their efforts to clear numerous dangerous items before people return home and call on the international community to provide training and resources to the Iraqi Security Forces to deal with the exponentially growing stockpiles of explosive hazards.
"The Iraqi children, women and men who are eagerly waiting to return home are our motivation. We know that they need UNMAS support to be able go back home. We keep that in mind in every effort we make, whether in mobilizing resources, providing training to the Ministry of Interior, issuing contracts and grants, providing risk education in IDP camps or removing IEDs.” - UNMAS Iraq Senior Programme Manager, Pehr Lodhammar.
UNMAS hard work and dedication to secure the environment and protect communities in Iraq would not have been possible without the strong support of the Governments of Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Since inception, UNMAS has secured $240 million. In 2021, UNMAS has $13 million in secured funds and is seeking an additional $47 million to support survey and clearance, explosive ordnance risk education, and technical support to the Government to contribute to the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of IDPs, as well as provide a safe environment for all Iraqis.