Dispatches > The Buzz

What lies beneath?

Uncovering the anthropology of war in Iraq is the work of fearless do-gooders

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

Following the fighting forces across Iraq are soldiers trained to excavate the detritus of the dictatorship: specialists who root out, test, and deactivate chemical weapons, nuclear material, and the terrorists' tools of the trade. Their tasks are as lethal as combat and require the precision of a guided missile. Their work will help write part of the history against which both Saddam Hussein and the coalition sworn to his ouster will be judged.

That kind of forensics cannot succeed without the little-noticed work of a private charity, Mines Advisory Group, or MAG. Based in Manchester, England, MAG has been operating in Iraq for 10 years and is the only outside aid organization to work nonstop through the past three weeks of fighting. "Before you can deliver any aid, you have to clear the areas of mines," said MAG spokesman Sean Sutton. "And you have to teach mine awareness so people don't blow themselves up."

Buried landmines designed to destroy civilians, soldiers, and tanks are the unremarkable, low-budget items in Saddam's arsenal. All it takes is a grudge and a spade to weaponize a field of grain.

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Before this war MAG worked in northern Iraq to rid areas of mines. Most were planted by Saddam's forces during the Iran-Iraq war and in the Anfal campaign to destroy thousands of Kurdish villages. The war has brought a new frenzy of activity, according to Mr. Sutton, who spoke to WORLD en route back into Iraq. In liberated areas, villagers are now directing experts to places where the explosives are waiting. Ahead of further military activity and humanitarian outreach, deactivating those sites is critical.

On April 2 displaced villagers led MAG technicians to Kadir Karam, once a town of 3,000 southeast of Kirkuk. Seized by Iraqi soldiers and turned into a military base, the town was abandoned by the soldiers once they came under attack from coalition and Kurdish forces. In retreat the Iraqis laid oil trenches around the town and filled the village mosque with hundreds of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. "It's horrendous," said Mr. Sutton.

Many of the devices sat piled on the floor and poked out of sandbags. Experts could work only one to a room-because of the danger-carefully slicing open the sandbags, disarming, and removing the mines one by one.

The success of coalition forces is already giving MAG greater access to more areas of Iraq. At Kifri, a mine-detection team uncovered a minefield surrounded by tripwires connected to 25-liter canisters of napalm and wired with explosive charges. MAG is also deactivating unexploded ordinance from U.S. and British attacks.

With United Nations sanctions in place, where did Saddam purchase so many landmines? From China, former Soviet nations, and Italy, according to Mr. Sutton. Italian weapons manufacturer Valsella sold 9 million anti-personnel landmines to Baghdad, in violation of UN embargoes. The company made so much money on sales to Saddam that it became a takeover target and eventually was purchased by Fiat. But factory workers in northern Italy and anti-landmine campaigners teamed up to end the trade. The workers staged a strike and brought enough international attention to shame Valsella. Eventually seven executives were arrested for $180 million in illegal weapons deals to Iraq. Most of the mines recovered from the Kadir Karam mosque were from Valsella sales.

Mr. Sutton told WORLD that MAG has never successfully worked within the UN sanctions regime, the Oil for Food program. Although its activities should have been covered under that humanitarian program, Saddam vetoed visa applications for de-mining workers. MAG teams enter the country through Kurdish-controlled areas rather than Baghdad. "We do have good relations with the Americans," said Mr. Sutton, even though MAG is not working officially with military forces. The group receives funding through the U.S. State Department and from the Swedish government.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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