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The Perilous Work of Clearing Bombs Left by ISIS

An Australian mine-clearing specialist died Tuesday while trying to defuse a bomb planted by ISIS in an Iraqi village.

Members of the Iraqi forces who specialize in detonating explosives search for hidden bombs and improvised explosive devices (IED) at a burial site believed to hold victims of a June massacre in which hundreds of army cadets were executed by the Islamic State (IS) group, in the city of Tikrit, on April 9, 2015. The Speicher massacre -- named after the nearby base from which the mostly Shiite recruits were abducted -- stoked widespread anger against IS and helped rally support to battle the jihadists.  AFP  PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read )
Members of the Iraqi forces who specialize in detonating explosives search for hidden bombs and improvised explosive devices (IED) at a burial site believed to hold victims of a June massacre in which hundreds of army cadets were executed by the Islamic State (IS) group, in the city of Tikrit, on April 9, 2015. The Speicher massacre -- named after the nearby base from which the mostly Shiite recruits were abducted -- stoked widespread anger against IS and helped rally support to battle the jihadists. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read )

Even in retreat from advancing Iraqi forces, who have retaken nearly half the territory seized by terrorists, the Islamic State still leaves a deadly legacy: The group is using booby traps and mines to bog down Iraq’s military and delay the return of internally displaced Iraqis.

The job of clearing villages rigged with such explosives is immensely dangerous, even for experts. On Tuesday, an Australian mine-clearing specialist died after a bomb he was defusing exploded in Daquq, a mixed Arab-Kurdish village in Kirkuk province that was retaken in April 2015.

The Australian, whose name has not been released, was working for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, a non-profit helping the Iraqi government clear recaptured villages of explosives — a primary obstacle to resettling many of the 3.3 million Iraqis displaced by conflict caused by the Islamic State.

“The gentleman was known to us as a very senior, very experienced, very safe operator. This is a complete shock to us, to his family and all who knew him,” said the group’s director, Hansjoerg Eberle, in a press statement.

The Swiss Foundation for Mine Action has sent three Australians, each of them expert bomb technicians with decades of military experience, to train locals and defuse IEDs.

So far, the organization has worked only in the village of Daquq, which had a pre-war population of approximately 10,000. There, the foundation has cleared 400-500 IEDs in the span of three-and-a-half months, according to Deputy Director General Ben Truniger.

“We have found so many IEDs [in Daquq] in such short time that it indicates there are thousands,” he told Foreign Policy. “While leaving, they left bombs basically everywhere, within all buildings that had been housing or command centers.”

Islamic State militants use whatever explosives they can find, Truniger said, and learn how to devise bombs as part of basic training.

“Whatever you can imagine, is there…pressure, trip wire, electric, some even remote controlled [mines],” Truniger said, adding that defusing the improvised devices is an “unusually dangerous and difficult task.”

The foundation has trained a local staff of about 50 to hunt IEDs, before calling in one of the foreign specialists, who do the nerve-wracking technical work of defusing them. Truniger said the foundation works under the mutual consent of authorities in Baghdad and Erbil, and is not beholden to any armed group.

Local forces also try to dismantle bombs, but given a lack of technical expertise, their efforts can often backfire. Kurdish militia commanders claimed to have defused more than 7,000 IEDs in 2015 in Kirkuk, but in that same year, up to 182 peshmerga fighters died while trying to defuse the explosives, according to internal documents obtained by the Kurdish television network NRT TV.

After Iraqi forces recaptured the strategic city of Ramadi in late 2015, backed by hundreds of U.S. airstrikes, the U.S. government awarded a $20 million contract, only a quarter of which has been paid, to Janus Global Operations, a Tennessee-based mine-clearance company, to clear the thousands of IEDs planted throughout the city.

That company is working in two groups of 40 and training locals, but the job, it said, could still take years, if not decades to complete.

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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