WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – IKMAA—Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency—has long worked to clear the Kurdistan Region of mines. Its efforts originally focused on those left behind by the regime of Saddam Hussein and its eight-year long war with Iran.
However, the emergence of the so-called Islamic State raised another, even deadlier, source of the destructive devices, which IKMAA and its partners, including the US, are now addressing.
Solomon Black is the Program Manager for the State Department’s Conventional Weapons Destruction Programs in the Middle East, which is responsible for such demining activities. Last week, Kurdistan 24 spoke with Black.
“IKMAA has distinguished themselves as one of the leading mine action centers,” Black said. It has demonstrated a “level of burden-sharing” and the “will to take responsibility for explosive hazard contamination in their territory that many across the region are still trying to figure out,” he added.
“We applaud IKMAA” for their efforts, and “we look forward to working with them in the years to come to address both the new contamination from ISIS, as well as the legacy contamination” from the Saddam era, Black continued.
The US is the largest donor to conventional weapons destruction activities worldwide, including in Iraq. Since 2003, it has invested nearly $500 million in the demining effort there.
April 4 was International Landmine Awareness Day, and the State Department released its annual report detailing its global destruction efforts, which was the prelude to our conversation with Black.
Black described the situation in Sinjar and the Nineveh Plains, which remain heavily contaminated by IEDs produced by the Islamic State.
“Imagine a village,” Black said, and “inside that village, ISIS sets up a bomb-making factory. Around that bomb-making factory, ISIS sets up booby traps. Then around that village, ISIS sets up land mines,” as he described the very considerable difficulties in clearing areas that have been occupied by the Islamic State.
“It’s going to take a serious amount of time to address that,” he explained— “years to come.”
“The United Nations is currently conducting a large survey of all areas liberated from ISIS,” which “will hopefully be completed by the end of the year,” he explained.
Because the Islamic State has left so many IEDs over such a wide area, demining authorities must prioritize where they focus their clearance efforts.
“The US coordinates closely with IKMAA and their counterpart in Baghdad, the Directorate of Mine Action, to identify areas with the greatest needs,” Black explained.
Priority goes to areas in which other preparations are being made to restore them to a condition suitable for the return of the inhabitants, who are now living in camps. According to UN figures released last month, 1.7 million Iraqis remain displaced, of which the Kurdistan Region hosts over 1.2 million, along with 273,000 Syrian refugees.
The US coordinates with the UN Development Program, as well as local governments, to identify areas slated for stabilization or humanitarian assistance, Black said.
He also stressed the unique nature of the IED menace left behind by the Islamic State. “The level of explosive hazard contamination and the sophistication of that contamination is unprecedented for a terrorist organization,” he stated.
“ISIS mass-produced technically sophisticated devices at the scale of some modern militaries and laid them across the country,” Black explained. “We’re talking about IEDs that were mass-produced in factory-like settings.”
In 2015, the highly-regarded German news magazine, Der Spiegel, published a lengthy report on the Islamic State based on captured documents. The story was a leak from German intelligence.
Titled, “Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” the report explained that the terrorist organization was established by officers of Saddam Hussein’s regime who moved into Syria in 2012, soon after the civil war began.
The former Iraqi officers established a base there. They exercised command and control over their organization, but cultivated an Islamic cover for it, which served to legitimize it to local people, while facilitating the recruitment of foreign jihadis—the contemporary equivalent of Lenin’s “useful idiots.”
Der Spiegel’s portrait of the Islamic State is similar to the official Kurdish view. Already in 2014, Kifah Mahmoud, media adviser to then President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, stated, “We believe that many groups are in cooperation, including the former Ba’ath regime's supporters, former army members, and Ba’ath administrators…Most of the people in the region believe that the organization known as [ISIS] is actually founded and ruled by the Ba’ath.”
“That explains a lot,” Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and currently a Senior Fellow at Soran University, told Kurdistan 24. “It certainly explains why ISIS was so skilled at making IEDs and why they were used with such brutality.”
Davis also remarked, “If the US had only said that”—i.e. the Islamic State is basically the former Iraqi regime with a religious cover—“we could have done a lot more, a lot earlier, to undermine its appeal.”
Editing by Nadia Riva