MANDALI, IRAQ—For the U.S. military engineers working this desolate stretch of heavily mined land along the border between Iraq and Iran, the danger isn't what they can see but what they cannot.
Thousands of land mines are scattered over the ground here, the remnants of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war fought during the 1980s. Even worse, millions more are buried just beneath the surface. "When the rains come, the old mines wash to the surface and slide into the road or get picked up by insurgents, which is why we're here to clear them up," says Capt. Brandon Bradley, 29, the commander of a U.S. Army engineering unit.
Two decades after the Iran-Iraq war ended, the ground here is still scarred with a deadly litter of unexploded ordnance: antipersonnel and antitank mines, grenades, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, rusting artillery rounds, and other explosive fragments scattered over the rocky ground.
The mines have left a devastating legacy. Not only do locals get injured or killed when one explodes, but the mines keep away farmers from potentially rich land.
They can also be quite valuable. One antitank mine fetches as much as $200 on the black market, according to Iraqi military officials. And turning it into an improvised explosive device is often quite literally child's play. Triggered by a child's walkie-talkie, for instance, a mine can easily be converted into an IED.
Mines are among the greatest threats to U.S. forces in Diyala province, says Lt. Col. Michael Kasales, who commands a cavalry unit responsible for a border area with extensive minefields. In this region, his troops are concerned about mines as much as, if not more than, they are about IEDs.
Nationwide, the Iraqi government estimates that there are some 4,000 minefields. Estimates of the total number of buried mines vary between 16 million and 25 million, some of which date back to World War II.
On a road about a half mile from the Iranian border, Bradley and his men spot a small antipersonnel mine lying on the road. They dispatch a robot to place an explosive charge next to the mine. Then, they drive the robot to safety and detonate the charge. It is a process that takes the better part of an hour. "They say that the mines cost about $2 to build and emplace, and it can cost a thousand dollars to remove them," says Bradley.
There have been sporadic efforts to clear mines in Iraq, but the task is daunting—some 8,000 square miles of often difficult-to-reach terrain has been laced with mines. Since 1992, the British-based humanitarian organization Mines Advisory Group, for instance, has cleared more than a million and a half mines from northern Iraq, parts of which were so heavily mined that there were more than 700 mines per acre of land.
In Iraq, the Red Cross last conducted a survey in 2001, which found about two dozen injuries from land mines per month. Iranian state television recently reported that 168 people have been killed demining the Iranian side of the border in the past eight years.
Most of the existing mines were placed into the land during the Iran-Iraq war, which ended in a stalemate in 1988. In many ways, it was closer to World War I than to modern combat. There were trenches and gas, little land was gained, and the opposing armies ended up largely where they started. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Iraqis died.
As the more technologically advanced Iraqi Army pushed into Iranian territory, the minefields helped consolidate territory and prevent the loss of that ground. In response, the Iranian clergy recruited and directed waves of thousands of boys and old men, called the People's Army, to run across the minefields under enemy fire. Many recruits brought their own burial shrouds to the battlefield.
In April 1983 in this sector of the border, the Iranian human-wave attacks were used in full force against Iraqi minefields and tanks. By the end of the year, an estimated 120,000 Iranians and 60,000 Iraqis had been killed, a Library of Congress study found.
There are monuments near the roads around the town of Mandali to the various battles from that war. But few venture off the road to see them. The battle lines in Diyala province's sandy-hilled border region changed as many as seven times during the course of the war. Each time, the armies buried thousands of antitank mines on flat, open ground to impede the advance of tanks.