Under Desert Sands

The Iraqi landscape is littered with live munitions, waiting to explode.

The boy lay crouched on his side in the bed of a pickup truck. A small crowd gathered around him. About 70 feet away, an American soldier climbed hesitantly out of a Humvee, gripping an M-16. "Is the kid in danger of dying?" he asked a middle-aged Iraqi man who had come toward him. The man looked confused. "He has lost a lot of blood," he replied. "His legs are injured very badly."

"Unless he looks like he's gonna die, we can't do anything," the soldier said. The man's confusion dissolved into disappointment. "I'm not a doctor," the Iraqi said, "but he's hurt very seriously." The young soldier climbed into the Humvee, having resolved his internal debate. "Stop hanging around," he ordered, "and take the kid to a hospital."

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I first met Abbas Abdul Hussein, a 14-year-old boy who lives near Furat, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad, early one morning in March. I had traveled there with Tony Fish, a British explosives technician. Fish manages Baghdad operations for Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), a nongovernmental organization that clears mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), the term for munitions used in battle without detonating.

Abbas Abdul's village is a patchwork of sunbaked mud houses clustered around an asphalt road near the point where Baghdad vanishes into a vacant topography of brush and cracked desert. An Iraqi Civil Defense Corps crew had agreed to help Fish detonate a 1,000-pound bomb that had failed to explode when a plane from the U.S.-led coalition dropped it on a formation of tanks. We met them near the site. As Fish outlined his plan, a boy charged out of a house to meet us.

Abbas Abdul was short for his age and looked much younger than 14. A childlike optimism filled his furry eyebrows and gentle smile. He had left school six years ago to help his older brother tend sheep in the fields outside Furat. I warned him about the leftover bombs, but he assured me he knew where they were. Then he ran off, vanishing as quickly as he had appeared.

Iraq and its population of 25 million have borne the brunt of two of the most technologically advanced wars in history, not to mention its war with Iran. More than 10 million mines litter the nation; unexploded bombs are everywhere—rooftops, date palm trees, schoolyards, irrigation ditches. The Iraqi military also left munition storage sites in Baghdad and other cities. Speaking of these caches, Lt. Colonel Tim Everhard, who led coalition clearance efforts after Operation Iraqi Freedom, remarked last year that "you can't swing a dead cat in Baghdad without hitting" leftover munitions.

The United States alone dropped a staggering number of bombs on Iraq. In Desert Storm, U.S. aircraft dropped at least 84,000 tons of explosives. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to a Pentagon official, U.S. aircraft dropped only one-seventh of the number of bombs that were used in Desert Storm. That smaller amount, however, can be misleading, as vast numbers of cluster munitions were launched from the ground. "The Pentagon is crowing about the Air Force sparing innocent civilians by using only precision weapons in Baghdad," Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch said last year. "That's a meaningless achievement if the Army then comes along and indiscriminately batters civilian neighborhoods with cluster munitions."

A cluster bomb is a large weapon that opens in midair, scattering hundreds of soda-can-size submunitions called bomblets. They can be delivered by aircraft or launched from ground-based artillery, rocket, and missile systems. Fish says that about 10 percent of bomblets fail to explode. According to Human Rights Watch, coalition aircraft dropped some 1,200 cluster bombs during Operation Iraqi Freedom, while coalition forces used more than 10,000 ground-based cluster munitions. The group estimates that at least 92,000 unexploded bomblets remain from Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as thousands more from Desert Storm.

I shadowed Fish's footsteps as he led me through a dry irrigation ditch. The desert brush and chalk-colored craters camouflaged 10-inch-long yellow canisters of BLU-97 bomblets. A battalion of Republican Guard tanks had bunkered down in 10-foot-deep pits around Furat before the war. Coalition aircraft gouged them out of their holes with 1,000-pound bombs and firestormed the landscape with cluster bombs. "They burned the barn to roast the pig," said Fish.

Fish has the hallmarks of a career military man. A weathered severity traces the line of his jaw, khaki cargo pants tuck narrowly into his well-worn combat boots, and a soft-spoken deliberateness bespeaks composure in the face of uncertainty. A few weeks after "major combat operations" were declared over, he pieced together a small outfit of explosives specialists, a meager arsenal of operating equipment, and a shoestring budget. At different times over the last year, coalition forces and the United Nations have done UXO removal in Iraq. The amount of military resources devoted to clearance, however, ebbs and flows with the security demands on coalition forces. While the State Department last year established a clearance program, most of the clearance work in Baghdad is being done by Fish's NPA crew and a few other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Rather than responding to a central command, NPA workers rely on their own observations and tips from locals to determine where to work. "It's free expression," Fish says. As of May, NPA had removed about 230,000 pieces of UXO, more than any NGO in Baghdad.

Fish had been working in the Furat area the day before we met Abbas Abdul. Near day's end, he learned about a half-ton bomb nearby. The next morning Fish and the Civil Defense crew found and buried it in a 12-foot-deep hole to reduce the explosion's impact on nearby homes. Halfway through laying the detonation wire and evacuating the villagers, we heard an explosion. Fish received a call on his radio soon after. The word was that a boy had apparently stepped on a bomblet less than a quarter mile away. Fish gathered whatever medical supplies he had and sent part of his crew to help.

Minutes later, I met Abbas Abdul for the second time that day. He had triggered a bomblet while climbing out of an irrigation ditch. Fortunately, the slope of the ditch had absorbed the impact of the explosion. It appeared that he had just stepped over the lip of the slope when the bomblet exploded. Villagers were saying that he had not actually stepped on the bomblet, and indeed, in desert climates, quick changes in temperature can cause bomblets to detonate. In their training programs, clearance technicians are taught to avoid even casting a shadow over a piece of UXO as that might set it off.

Whatever happened, most of Abbas Abdul's left thigh had disappeared. His right thigh didn't look much better. The crew bandaged what remained and connected an IV to his arm. Fifteen minutes passed before the truck left for a hospital. If Abbas Abdul survived—and I don't know if he did—he likely lost one, if not both, of his legs.

A somber mood hung over the crew for the rest of the day. Fish worked until he had exhausted almost every moment of sunlight. By day's end, his team had cleared several hundred pieces of UXO, placing whatever munitions that didn't need to be destroyed on-site into a truck, which would take them to a storage facility on the outskirts of Baghdad.

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