In northern Iraq, Kurds struggle with IS booby traps

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are proving a difficult weapon to overcome for Iraq's Kurds, much as they were for US forces in the country after 2003.

Ari Jalal/Reuters
Kurdish fighters outside Mosul, Iraq on Jan. 30 2015.

War is always dangerous. But for the woefully under-equipped Kurdish Iraqi sappers clearing the mines and booby-traps laid by the so-called Islamic State, it sometimes borders on the suicidal.

Kurdish officers say the leading cause of death for their soldiers fighting IS are the improvised explosive devices the jihadi group leaves behind to cover its retreat. The bombs, disguised as everything from seat-belt buckles to television switches to flashlights, have killed 60 percent of the roughly 800 peshmerga casualties in the war against IS, according to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

Several deminers have been killed since IS rolled into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, with about 8,000 IEDS successfully defused by Kurdish teams since then according to Mahmoud Hussein, who heads the peshmerga demining effort.

Hussein says the IEDs buy time for IS by slowing down the Kurdish advance, making the work his teams do crucial. But it isn't easy.

“Their style is devilish... sophisticated,” says Mr. Hussein, a military engineer who cut his teeth laying and defusing mines during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He says his teams spend a lot of time spreading knowledge about new bomb designs.

While the focus is on clearing roads, many casualties take place while clearing houses so civilians can return home. “We can’t just abandon them to fate, to booby-trapped houses,” he says.

There's a lot of practical demining knowledge in Iraqi Kurdistan, a legacy of an unfortunate modern history: Intermittent wars for independence from Baghdad since the '60s; the 1980-88 Iraqi war with Iran; the 1991 Gulf War and the 1994-1997 Iraqi Kurdish civil war. Before the current crisis, there were at least 96 square miles of mine-contaminated areas, down from 720 miles in the 1990s, according to Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency (IKMAA) figures

More than 3,500 hazardous areas remain, excluding past or present battlefields, according to the Mines Advisory Group Iraq office. “Iraq remains one of the most contaminated places in the world and there is a heavy concentration of that contamination in the Kurdish regions,” says MAG country director Nina Seecheran.

But IEDS have proven trickier says Ako Aziz, director of the IKMAA, which lost four of its team members in a clearance operation in the town of Zumar last October. “Our teams are trained to deal with mines and unexploded ordnance but for IEDS specialized training is needed.”

Ms. Seecheran's organization spent most of 2013 and 2014 clearing land for camps hosting Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis who sought shelter in the Kurdish areas. The organization is currently seeking funding to carry out assessments, trainings and operations that respond to the IED threat.

“It is a laborious and lengthy process potentially,” she says. “You are talking about an asymmetric conflict that doesn’t have a ceasefire. Finding a way to engage is very important because we still have a humanitarian mandate to protect civilians…. We can’t just say will hang fire until we can do something.”

Militarily, US-led coalition air strikes have repeatedly targeted IED-making facilities. But on top of destroying some of these factories, the strikes also inevitably add to the long list of unexploded remnants of war.  

Experts say that technical surveys are needed to measure the scope of the problem. But anecdotal figures hint at the headache ahead. “We are deactivating 30 to 40 bombs per day,” says Captain Adnan Rajab, a squadron leader serving in Gwer, Makhmour and Kirkuk.

Over 1,000 mines and bombs were planted in the strategic Mosul Dam area alone.

Most of the IEDS left behind by IS militants are fertilizer-based, making them cheap to manufacture and easy to conceal. The homemade contraptions can be activated by mobile phone, trip wire or pressure, such as that of a car passing over a pipeline or hose packed with explosives. Remotely detonated bombs by cell phones or radio signals are a special problem.

Lacking military-grade jammers, peshmerga forces have turned to a civilian version designed for mosques – they silence cell phones in places of worship. Kurdish officers say they need more.

“We need powerful scramblers and armored vehicles for our teams to enter the threat or kill zones,” says Colonel Miqdad Waheed Mohammed, returning from a field visit to Kirkuk where the explosives clearance teams sport light body armor and carry nothing but pliers.

“Most of our men are on suicide missions, going in with nothing but a pair of cutters,” says Mr. Mohammed. “When our men die, we pick up the pieces. It is not like a soldier was shot. A small bomb can destroy a whole room so imagine what it does to a person.”

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