Priorities: UXO and the US in Iraq

Tasneem Jamal

Author
Lisa Martens

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2003 Volume 24 Issue 2

Lisa Martens has been associated with Christian Peacemaker Teams since 1998. She has served on teams in Chiapas, South Dakota, Grassy Narrows ON, Colombia, and, since February 1, 2003, Iraq.

Since 1993, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has been recruiting and training individuals for the Christian Peacemaker Corps (CPC). Corps members, trained in peacemaking skills and nonviolent direct action, enter emergency situations of conflict and areas of militarization at the invitation of local peacemakers. Teams seek to advance the cause of lasting peace by giving support to peacemakers working locally in situations of conflict; to inspire people and governments to discard violence in favour of nonviolent action as a means of settling differences; to provide home communities with first-hand information and resources for responding to worldwide situations of conflict and to urge their active involvement; and to offer a nonviolent perspective to the media.

CPT maintained a continuous presence in Iraq from October 25, 2002 until April 1, 2003. After a brief absence, they returned to Iraq on April 16.

Since their return in April, CPT has been attempting to draw the attention of US forces to the problems of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Baghdad. In pursing this problem, CPT has learned something about US priorities and about the ongoing dangers and challenges of dealing with the leftovers of war.

The Al-Monsour neighbourhood of Baghdad

On April 22, 2003, CPT members were driving in the Al-Monsour neighbourhood of Baghdad, near the intersection of 14 Ramadhan Street and the Bridge to the Ramady Expressway, when they saw a large quantity of UXO around blownup Iraqi military vehicles on the median between the roads. CPT documented the scene. The ordnance included cases of mortar rounds, small rockets, mines, and grenades. From an initial inspection, many appeared to be burnt, but still live and dangerous. When the CPT members told a US soldier in the area, he just chuckled and said, “Things like that tend to go away after a while.” The same day, CPT notified Capt. Robbins of the US Army headquarters near the Palestine Hotel. CPT gave the approximate location, and Robbins indicated that he would pass the message up his chain of command. He also said that CPT could find a military detachment closer to the site and should also give this information to that detachment.

On April 23, CPT spoke about the site with military personnel from two units, including Sgt. Ayers in the Al-Monsour district. The team presented a map and photos of the site. Ayers assured CPT that he and his team had been to the site and removed ordnance stable enough to transport. When the team asked about the status of the ordnance left behind, Ayers said that they were very unstable and could explode at any time. When the team expressed their concern about this, Ayers suggested that CPT visit US headquarters in two days if the site had not been cleaned up by then, and ask to speak with Lt. Moore.

CPT members followed the instructions of military personnel for the next several days, and continued to visit the site. Cases of live munitions began to disappear from the site. The site was within 50 metres

of occupied civilian houses, and a few metres from heavily travelled streets, and children were frequently seen to walk right up to the site. When CPT requested that military personnel guard the site or block it off with barbed wire or brightly coloured tape and signs, the military responded that they “did not have the resources” and that they were “out of orange tape.”

On April 28, a soldier of the Charlie Battery, First Battalion, said that he was not as concerned about children walking around the ordnance as he was about people stealing it and using it against US forces.

Twice, US army personnel from different units travelled in tanks and humvees to the site and looked at it, guided by CPT members. Several times, CPT members brought up the issue of this pile of ordnance at meetings hosted by senior US army officers. On two occasions, military personnel said that the site was too dangerous for their particular unit to clean up and that a specialized UXO team would have to deal with it.

Sometime between May 4 and 7 the site was finally cleaned up.

Al-Wathag Square

On May 21 CPT visited Al-Wathag Square, a commercial area where UXO had been found. The main concerns here were small yellow cluster bomblets, along with grenades, mortar rounds, and rocket-propelled grenades. When the team reported this hazard to Sgt. Coultry at US Command, he said that it was not in his jurisdiction. CPT prepared a written report, but the US army liaison officer at the Iraqi Assistance Mission, Lt. Col. Stewart Gordon, would not accept the report because it did not include Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates for the site. CPT and most Iraqis have no access to GPS devices. Later in the day, Gordon agreed to accept the report. The site was cleaned up on May 23. On June 1, a worker from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) informed CPT that the US military has issued a new UXO reporting form which does not require GPS coordinates.

Other incidents

On April 26, CPT members learned about an explosion at an unprotected munitions dump in the Al-Zafarania neighbourhood in southeast Baghdad. Forty civilians were killed in the explosion. Arriving about five hours after the first explosion, the team found that munitions were still burning and exploding in the dump. Shrapnel and other munitions blown out of the site covered a three-kilometre radius. Standing about 200 metres away, CPT members could see spontaneous explosions going off in the shallow pit. A few Iraqis were walking in and out of the area. No US forces were guarding the site, nor was it marked off. CPT members could see a few US military vehicles about half a kilometre away.

The team then visited 10 other residential sites in the area where similar dumps of abandoned Iraqi ordnance or unexploded US ordnance were evident. At one site they saw a live US missile partly buried in the ground. At another there were six 20-foot-long Iraqi missiles lying on the ground with other bombs.

On May 1, CPT members visited a four-year-old boy named Ali at the Al-Acadhumiya hospital. On April 10, he had been blinded and brain-damaged when he touched an unexploded cluster bomblet near his home. His family was desperate to transfer him to a country with better hospital resources. Ali’s doctor said that the priority of the US government was clearly oil, and not the protection of civilians. Doctors in other hospitals reported to CPT that their hospitals were receiving numerous people injured or killed by ordnance.

In one primary school visited by CPT on May 14, the principal reported that after the war she had had to ask Iraqi engineers to volunteer to clean up live bullets from her school before she could re-open the building for classes. In a second school, the principal reported that she had had to ask US army officials three times before they came to clean up UXO. A week after the clean-up and the start of classes, a primary-age student found 30 pieces of ordnance on the other side of a wall, about 10 metres from the school. The children were sent home. After one request, US Army personnel cleaned up the ordnance.

How long? How much?

Estimates on how long it will take to clean up ordnance in Iraq are confused but suggest a time-line of years. On April 29, US Army Lt. Matthew Wheeler told CPT, “We don’t have enough resources. Iraq is now in the top five countries in the world with UXO, right up there with Bosnia and Afghanistan. It will take five years to clean up all the sites here.” An ICRC worker, with whom the CPT team talked later, thought that Wheeler’s figure was accurate. On May 15, US Army Lt. Col. Everhard reported that there were now about 100 US soldiers working in Baghdad on UXO.

On May 22, CPT’s colleagues from Mennonite Central Committee made inquiries about UXO. At three different meetings they heard the same US military officer give radically different sets of figures for the numbers of sites cleaned up and still remaining. When questioned about the disparity in his figures, he said, “I need to check my sources.”

The UN reported on June 4 that there is 1.5-million tonnes of UXO in the Basrah area of southern Iraq alone, and that Iraq may have more UXO than any other place in the world.

On June 10, Maj. Dennis Kennedy reported at a meeting attended by CPT that 1,665 sites with UXO had been reported in Baghdad and that 1,381 of those had now been cleared. However, he said that these figures did not include sites with landmines or any other sub-surface ordnance. He added (hesitantly) that he thought it could take years to clean all of Baghdad of UXO ordnance.

And now?

CPT members see the tanks, the guns, and the fire power of the US every day on the streets of Baghdad. The team does not know the number of weapons possessed by Iraqis, but the slowness with which US forces are cleaning up abandoned ordnance provides ample opportunity for those who might want munitions to help themselves.

Spread the Word