Iraq is the most heavily mined country in the world and clearance efforts are still “decades” off completion, a specialist landmine charity has said on 20th anniversary of the 2003 invasion.
A recorded 1,733 square kilometres of land in Iraq was contaminated with landmines at the end of 2021, the latest data available, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor and Mine Action Review.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK-based charity with 800 staff members in Iraq alone, said that decades of conflict spanning back to the 80s had left the country littered with bombs.
Chief executive Darren Cormack told i: “We’ve been working in Iraq since 1992 and I’ve seen first hand the ongoing legacy of landmine contamination arising from multiple conflicts, including the 2003 invasion.
“The 1980 to 1988 war with Iran, the 1991 Gulf War, internal conflicts and the 2003 invasion have together made the country the most heavily mined country in the world. In addition, the occupation of large areas by Islamic State, from 2014 onward, added further extensive contamination with improvised mines and other explosive devices.”
Mr Cormack said that children are frequently victims of the explosives and that minefields were continuing to cost “lives and limbs” in Iraq.
But beyond the immediate dangers, Mr Cormack warned that the prevalence of deadly mines was hampering Iraq’s post-war recovery.
“The landmine problem affects also hampers development, prevents displaced people from returning to their homes and thwarts post-conflict reconstruction,” he said. “It’s a problem that will take decades to fix.”
Aid workers in Iraq have warned that the country is still “in crisis” 20 years after the US-led invasion, with around one third of the country living in poverty.
Children are being forced into work and marriage in order to fund their schooling, Save The Children told i, and more than a million Iraqis are displaced.
The Iraq war began in March 2003, when a coalition of troops, led by the US and including the UK, invaded Iraq.
The US and UK Governments said they had information suggesting that Iraq had acquired ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which violated economic sanctions in place against it – something that was later found to be untrue.
The US also claimed that the Iraqi Government, led by Saddam Hussein, was supporting terrorism. However, a bipartisan commission formed to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks later found there was no evidence of a “collaborative operational relationship” between the Iraqi Government and al-Qaeda.
The war triggered widespread protests around the world, including in the UK.
On 17 March, despite the calls from other world leaders in France and Germany to give Iraq more time to comply with a UN mandate for weapons inspections, US President George Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair declared an end to diplomacy with Iraq and gave Saddam 48 hours to leave the country.
When he refused, the US, UK and their allied forces launched air strikes against Government and military targets, beginning on 20 March 2003. Ground troops later invaded from the south. Some Iraqi Government forces refused to fight against the invading coalition, but the US and UK faced resistance from paramilitary fighters who supported Saddam.
On 4 April, Western forces seized control of Baghdad’s airport, and five days later, took the capital city of Baghdad.
Having seized a number of cities, President Bush declared that major combat had ended on 1 May, and Iraqi resistance fled into hiding. The country erupted into guerilla warfare and economic turmoil which lasted for several years. It was not until 2011 that the final US and UK soldiers left Iraq.
The number of Iraqis who died in the conflict is unclear, but estimates range from 40,000 to 650,000. More than 4,300 US soldiers lost their lives, and 179 British troops.
Saddam was captured by US forces in December 2003. He later convicted of crimes against humanity for his repressive control of the country and executed.