Iraq’s deadly debris: When bombs and bullets kill after the fighting ends

Eight-year-old Karar Hussein lies on the floor of his family’s partially-constructed home in Baghdad. Shrapnel pierced his feet and chest after he accidentally set off a bomb left in a nearby field. Such left-over ordnance has killed hundreds of people. (Noah Addis)

BAGHDAD —  In a trash-strewn field on the road to Baghdad International Airport, 8-year-old Karar Hussein went looking for adventure. He found it in a spent artillery casing, a remnant of a battle between American soldiers and the Iraqi army.

The boy picked up the cylinder, straining under its weight, and heaved it as far as he could. The casing landed on a small, black bomb. The resulting explosion shook his nearby house. Karar’s 20-year-old brother, Hamza, dropped his dinner on the floor and rushed outside.

“I didn’t expect to find anything of him left,” Hamza Hussein said. “The explosion was so loud and strong.”

The blast last week propelled Karar 20 feet through the air. He survived, but it will be several weeks before he walks again. Shrapnel pierced one foot completely and became embedded in the other. More shards raked his chest.

“Thank God it wasn’t worse,” said his father, Hussein Jabbir, 71, raising clasped hands skyward. “He was lucky.”

Many others are not.

Across Iraq, the aftermath of the U.S.-led war to drive Saddam Hussein from power is proving as dangerous for civilians as the combat was. Hundreds of people, most of them children, have been killed or maimed by coming into contact with unexploded artillery shells, cluster bombs, grenades and bullets, according to doctors and humanitarian assistance groups.

Despite cleanup efforts by the U.S. military, munitions remain scattered in open fields and in residential neighborhoods. They’re in schoolyards and alongside homes, on the streets and inside hundreds of deserted or destroyed military vehicles that scar the landscape here.

Abandoned military equipment, including live artillery shells, sit under an elevated highway in Baghdad. (Noah Addis)

Much of the ordnance remains live, abandoned by the Iraqi army ahead of the regime’s fall. But even expended ordnance poses a threat. Many children have set fire to the residue of gunpowder and rocket propellant, suffering serious burns as a result.

“Every day there are new miseries,” said Aws Khidir, 30, a surgeon at Baghdad Teaching Hospital, where doctors have treated more than a dozen people for disfiguring injuries and burns caused by ordnance since the war. “It’s always the children. They think these things are toys, and then they explode.”

No organization keeps precise statistics on casualties from leftover munitions, but humanitarian groups say reports from major cities alone suggest a death toll already in the hundreds. More than 50 people have been reported dead in the southern city of Basra, and an equal number in the northern city of Kirkuk. Scores have been killed in Najaf, Karbala and Mosul.

In Baghdad, ordnance kills or injures at least 10 people a day, said Shoubo Rasheed, the coordinator of a UNICEF initiative to educate residents about the hazards.

The munitions are perilous even to those trained to spot them. On Saturday, unexploded ordnance killed a U.S. soldier and injured three others in the capital, the military said.

More often, the victims are inquisitive children who pick through battlefields, climb atop military vehicles and pull apart live bullets and shells. Exacerbating the problem are the huge caches of weapons and ammunition left behind by Iraqi soldiers and guerrilla fighters who were loyal to Saddam.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Johan Sohlberg, the explosive-remnants coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “I’ve been to shops, private homes, schools and industrial compounds all loaded with ammunition.”

In one kindergarten classroom in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, Sohlberg counted 500 mortar rounds. Now in Baghdad, Sohlberg said the aid agency receives details of dozens of new discoveries each day. Late last week, more than 600 sites in the capital had yet to be cleared.

Some sites contain a single AK-47 assault rifle. Others are peppered with rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells, ammunition or cluster bombs, widely used by the United States and Great Britain during the war. One cluster bomb contains 200 to 300 bomblets, which scatter over a wide area. Up to one-fifth of the tiny bomblets fail to explode on contact, making them vulnerable to detonation when handled.

A U.S. soldier looks over a former soccer field littered with abandoned munitions in the Mahdia section of Baghdad. (Noah Addis)

In southern and northern Iraq, land mines pose an additional danger. According to UNICEF, Iraq is among the most heavily mined countries in the world, with millions of the devices planted in the ground. Some date back two decades to the Iran-Iraq War. Their presence ensures that people will be killed and injured for years to come, UNICEF says.

But the more immediate threat lies in munitions scattered around Iraq’s cities, home to 70 percent of the population. With electricity still scarce and school attendance far short of its prewar level, many children are out hunting for something to do. Too often they stumble across the detritus of war.

The Italian Red Cross opened a field hospital in Baghdad eight days ago. Its first case involved two young boys. One of them, age 9, had brought home an artillery shell.

“He thought it would impress his family,” said Ugo Berinieri, the agency’s relief coordinator for Iraq. “He threw it in the cooking fire. It exploded.”

Four family members died instantly, Berinieri said. The boy himself died 30 minutes after arriving at the field hospital, a cluster of large, air-conditioned tents erected in a parking lot. The boy’s brother survived and was later flown to Italy for treatment of severe burns covering 78 percent of his body.

On the hospital’s second day open, Berinieri said, doctors treated an 11-year-old boy named Samir, the lone survivor of an accident with a hand grenade. Four of his friends died. Samir was hit with shrapnel in both eyes but retained his sight.

Similar stories emerge at hospital after hospital, where doctors have grown increasingly frustrated by the number of preventable injuries and deaths.

“What is happening is a tragedy,” said Ghazi Al-Fahd, the director of Baghdad’s Zaffaraniyah Hospital, not far from the Al-Rasheed military base. “We had a lot of army activity in this area, and consequently we have seen a lot of these sorts of injuries. Some of them are terrible. We’ve never seen burns that bad.”

In the last six weeks, Al-Fahd said, he has signed death certificates for seven people killed by munitions. He estimated the hospital has treated 50 survivors.

For the U.S. military, ordnance removal comes down to a race against the clock. Teams of soldiers and private contractors hired within Iraq have been deployed across the capital to remove charred military and civilian vehicles used by Baghdad’s defenders during the war. Those vehicles are brought to a large dirt field just south of the city, where scores of artillery pieces and vehicles, some American, sit in a line half a mile long.

Thousands of spent shells litter the beds of Iraqi pickup trucks where heavy machine guns were once mounted. At least two unexploded mortar shells lay on the side of the road.

It is the job of U.S. combat engineers to clear sites of munitions. So far, they’ve removed or blown up tons of recovered ordnance, including 600 cluster bombs found in Baghdad’s Daura section, a mix of industrial and residential neighborhoods.

But even when sites are cleared, some munitions are missed.

Five hundred yards from the spot where 8-year-old Karar Hussein was injured, on a former soccer field previously inspected by the engineers, a teenage boy pointed out two artillery shells to Lt. Chris Gibson, who had arrived with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division to remove destroyed vehicles.

After eyeing the shells, Gibson said he would have to call in the engineers again.

“Looks like the fuses are gone, so they’re probably not dangerous, but it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Gibson said.

He was speaking from experience.

Last month, Gibson was in the town of Diwaniya when a U.S. soldier stepped on an American cluster bomb, losing his foot.

“I walked by a bunch of them without even knowing what they were,” Gibson said.

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