Mud roads crisscross green hills between palm groves. Snowcapped mountains rise in the distance across the Iranian border. Donkeys stroll along footpaths, carrying the region’s harvest – land mines. Risking their lives, Iraqi shepherds are increasingly venturing into these deadly fields to dig up mines planted during the Iran-Iraq war two decades ago, according to US soldiers, who told AP that insurgents then use the mines to fashion roadside bombs that kill American troops.
With Iraq’s economy still struggling, shepherds need the money. And the insurgents are looking for more sources of weapons and explosives as the war enters its fifth year.
“They’re going out there and farming them,” said Capt. Jesse Stewart of Seattle, Wash., who runs a training school for Iraqi border guards at this border station 90 miles northeast of Baghdad. “Shepherds are digging them up and selling them on the black market.”
Old Iran-Iraq war era land mines were used in about 15 percent of the roadside bombs that exploded or were detected in northern Iraq during January, according to Navy Lt. Sarah Wilson, an explosives officer from Moon Township based in Tikrit.
Many of them were believed to have come from this border area.
“All of that unexploded ordnance, minefields and shrapnel – it’s still out there,” said Lt. Col. Ron Ward, 49, who helps train Iraqi guards.
The vast majority of harvested mines reach their insurgent buyers undetected.
In November, US troops confiscated 53 anti-tank mines and a rocket strapped to the backs of six donkeys found wandering on a footpath outside Khanaqin, about five miles from Iran.
The mines were older Soviet and Italian models of the same type Saddam Hussein’s army used along this border during the Iran-Iraq war, the US military said.
And there’s plenty more where that came from.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines estimates that Saddam ordered between 12 and 16 million mines planted along the border with Iran during the war. A UN project cleared less than 10,000 mines between 1998 and 2002 before work was halted.
Attention has been focused on the porous, 900-mile border because US military officials allege that Iranian weapons, including advanced roadside bombs, are being smuggled to Shiite extremists here. Iran has denied the allegation, but US officials insist they have compelling evidence that components for “explosively formed projectiles” were manufactured in Iran, although they were never able to present the alleged proofs or evidence.
American officials say the EPFs account for a relatively small percentage of the roadside bombs used in Iraq but have still killed more than 170 US and coalition soldiers since mid-2004.
Despite the recent spotlight on Iran, US officials say the majority of weapons used by Sunni and Shiite extremists have been in this country for years and were looted from Iraqi military arsenals after the fall of Saddam in April 2003.
About 30 percent of the insurgent weapons found here in Diyala province date back to the Iran-Iraq war, said Maj. Suzanne MacDonald, an intelligence officer with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade.
They include not only mines planted along the Iranian border but also weapons caches buried by the Iraqi military decades ago in a labyrinth of clay dunes and stone outcroppings, said MacDonald, 38, from Georgetown, Texas.
“Terrorists go and collect those weapons – land mines and mortars – that are left from the Iran-Iraq war,” said Gen. Nazim Shareef Muhamed, a former Kurdish guerrilla fighter who heads the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement in Khanaqin.
It is easier for locals, who have farmed this difficult terrain for generations, to find the buried weaponry, said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of US forces in northern Iraq.
They “don’t need night vision technology” to locate it, Mixon said. The Iraqis then presumably remove the detonators before transporting the mines for sale to insurgents.
Those recycled weapons have been used against US and Iraqi forces across a wide area of eastern Iraq.
“In Balad Ruz, we got hit by 18 anti-tank mines that I’m 100 percent sure came from right here,” Stewart said, referring to a town about 60 miles to the south.
The Red Cross said in 2001 that an average of 30 Iraqis per month were injured by land mines and unexploded ordnance in this region. But surveys have been impossible since then and many injuries are believed to go unreported. An Iraqi border guard lost his leg last year in an explosion from a land mine here.
US officers believe economics is responsible for an increase in the harvesting of old mines and weapons – although they did not know how much an anti-tank or anti-personnel mine can fetch on the black market.
And with Iraq’s economy faltering and unemployment in some areas as high as 60 percent, Iraqis who have no direct role in the insurgency are turning to small-scale arms deals for their livelihood.
“If you’re working either for the bad guys or just to feed your family, you’ve just found a couple dollars that might take care of your family for the week if you sell it,” said Wilson.
Human Rights Watch estimates than nearly 150,000 Iraqi families – or about 900,000 people – live in communities near mine fields. The area is mostly Kurdish but has substantial numbers of Arabs.
“Most folks here don’t think there will be success in the Iraqi government,” MacDonald said. “The less optimism they have for the future, the more they think of themselves and their clan or hometown.”
Anti-tank mines are the safest to collect because they are not as sensitive as anti-personnel mines and are less likely to explode during harvesting, said Wilson.
And, she said, “They’re the easiest thing for the enemy to use against us, because they’re already manufactured. It’s simple: Drop and go.”