SADDAM HUSSEIN'S military has abandoned millions of land mines in northern Iraq that now constitute a dire threat to the lives of civilian Iraqi Kurds, according to a just-released report by the human rights group Middle East Watch.
The study charges that the extent of the mining is far greater than needed for legitimate defense. "It is a reasonable conclusion that the Iraqi Army laid and abandoned these millions of mines to make large areas of Kurdistan unusable for all time," according to the authors.
Middle East Watch further charges that the nations where the mines were designed and produced share some of the blame for the situation. The group says Italy should take the lead in organizing a cleanup "because such a large majority of the devices in Kurdistan are either of Italian design or manufacture."
The mine danger in Kurdistan has become clear since the Iraqi Army's withdrawal from the area in the wake of the Gulf war. Kurds kept from normal life by the fighting that has intermittently swept the area for years returned to their farms and villages, often to find poorly marked minefields instead.
Many of the mines were laid during the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s. Others were sown as a measure against Kurdish guerrillas, who allied themselves with the Iranians against Iraqi forces. Still others may have been part of a defensive perimeter erected against a possible US Desert Storm thrust.
There are mines in virtually all areas of Kurdistan, according to a Kurdish official quoted in the report. The Iraqis made few maps of the minefields to aid their removal. When they withdrew from the area under US pressure they did not clear the mines, in contravention of international law.
As of last August, Kurdish civilian deaths and injuries due to mines continued at a rate of 12 to 20 a week. Even when locals know mine locations, activities such as firewood collection, livestock herding, and inexpert clearing attempts can have fatal consequences.
The mine models most often encountered by Middle East Watch officials were the Valmara 69 and the VS-50 - both made by the Italian firm Valsella Meccanotecnica. Soviet-designed mines were found as well, in addition to smaller numbers of French, US, and Chinese models. Early last year seven Valsella executives were convicted by an Italian court of illegally exporting millions of mines (via Singapore) to Iraq in the early 1980s.
Both armsmakers and governments have a cynical attitude toward selling mines abroad, charges Middle East Watch, best summed up as "if we don't sell them, somebody else will."
The US Congress recently passed a one-year moratorium on sales of US land mines overseas. The Middle East Watch report urges the European Community to ban outright the manufacture, sale, or even possession of land mines by its member nations.