Feature

In Iraq, the Bitter Legacy of War Still Lies Hidden Underground

Baghdad can’t rebuild its infrastructure and agricultural sector when its land remains littered with thousands of explosive devices.

A Halo Trust member lifts a tarp covering explosive debris.
A Halo Trust member lifts a tarp covering explosive debris.
A member of the Halo Trust, a humanitarian organization that clears land mines and other explosive debris, lifts up a tarp at a secret site near Baiji, Iraq, for storing IEDs on Nov. 1, 2021. Once extracted from the ground, they are kept in the desert before being removed for their controlled destruction. Jack Losh photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures.

BAIJI, Iraq—Like the neck of a giraffe, a minesweeping vehicle extends a serrated bucket forward and dips its teeth into the blighted earth. It drags the dry soil backward, sifting, before harvesting a jerrycan and gently placing it on the edge of a field.

This is no harmless piece of trash; the container holds 20 liters (or around 5 gallons) of explosives—enough firepower to kill multiple people and wreck an armored vehicle. Nor is it a rarity. All around, a vast field is filled with dozens of fluttering ribbons attached to small yellow posts, each one placed where another bomb once lay.

In total, a staggering 700 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been pulled out of this arid field by the Halo Trust, a humanitarian organization that clears land mines and other explosive debris. Those weapons are just a fraction of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of IEDs laid across Iraq by the Islamic State during its reign of terror.

BAIJI, Iraq—Like the neck of a giraffe, a minesweeping vehicle extends a serrated bucket forward and dips its teeth into the blighted earth. It drags the dry soil backward, sifting, before harvesting a jerrycan and gently placing it on the edge of a field.

This is no harmless piece of trash; the container holds 20 liters (or around 5 gallons) of explosives—enough firepower to kill multiple people and wreck an armored vehicle. Nor is it a rarity. All around, a vast field is filled with dozens of fluttering ribbons attached to small yellow posts, each one placed where another bomb once lay.

In total, a staggering 700 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been pulled out of this arid field by the Halo Trust, a humanitarian organization that clears land mines and other explosive debris. Those weapons are just a fraction of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of IEDs laid across Iraq by the Islamic State during its reign of terror.

Here in Baiji, an industrial town in the Salahuddin province between Baghdad and Mosul that was ravaged by fighting, dense belts of the buried bombs fan out from a nearby oil refinery, the country’s largest and a site once jealously guarded by Islamic State fighters.

“They placed IEDs every three to five meters from each other,” said Halo Trust team leader Omar Hussam, looking out over a field that took 10 months to clear. “There are many, many areas with the same density as here.”

These indiscriminate weapons, along with unexploded shells and minefields from earlier wars, have made Iraq one of the world’s most explosive-littered countries in the world. Like ash from a volcanic eruption, repeated flare-ups of conflict over the past few decades have left explosives strewn across swaths of the country.

A mine-clearance expert stands on his mechanical deminer.

A Halo Trust mine-clearance expert stands on his mechanical deminer in a vast field near Baiji’s oil refinery on Nov. 3, 2021. The oil refinery is filled with dozens of yellow posts, each one placed where a roadside bomb once lay.

To the south, legacy minefields and unexploded cluster munitions were left by the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Exacerbating the problem is the unprecedented, industrial-scale use of IEDs by the Islamic State to the north in addition to the large quantities of mortars and artillery shells fired by both jihadi and pro-government forces.

The problem with using explosive weapons in populated areas is not only can they kill, injure, traumatize, and displace the population, but their temperamental design and inaccurate use mean many fail to explode on impact. That legacy can threaten civilians years after a conflict has ended, setting in motion a vicious cycle.

Their persisting presence impedes economic development and the return of refugees while hindering access to health, education, and other essential services. Across Iraq, more than a quarter of explosive ordnance contamination is found in agricultural areas, preventing farmers from using the land or making a living. Another fifth is found in infrastructure, hampering reconstruction efforts and attempts to kick-start the economy. Grievances stack up, creating flash points for further fighting.

Around 1,100 square miles of explosive-littered land have so far been recorded, according to the  United Nations Mine Action Service. A fraction of that has been cleared. The true extent is not known and is likely far higher. Nor is the total number of casualties clear-cut, though researchers put the toll at more than 10,000 deaths and some 24,000 people injured over the last two decades.


Today, despite pockets of insurgency, the Islamic State has been largely defeated on the battlefield. Yet its penchant for packing its past territories with deadly explosives has cast a long shadow and continues to take a horrendous toll on civilians.

The immense scale of the problem far outweighs deminers’ current resources. “Iraq is unique in that it includes a complete range of contamination,” said Geoff Moynan, the Halo Trust’s program manager there.

Manual clearance is the only option in some terrain, but, here in Baiji and elsewhere, the crisis is so extensive that much of the Halo Trust’s work relies on mechanized removal. The British organization recruits locals to map the threats, educate families on the risks, mark out safe routes for children to take to school, and deploy specialized armored vehicles to make the ground safe again, before returning the land to the community.

Yet even as this crisis’s massive scale comes into focus, international support is waning. Western capitals are realigning their relationship with Baghdad while diplomats feel increasingly frustrated with the Iraqi authorities’ failure to follow through on promises of reform. The indirect effect is that demining groups face an ever-dwindling pot of support.

The question is whether this lifesaving work can be done before that support runs out for good.


Etab Jalawy sits in her home.

Etab Jalawy, who was scarred and blinded in an IED blast while fleeing the Islamic State, sits at her home on the outskirts of Baiji, Iraq, on Nov. 2, 2021. Her two young boys were killed by the explosion.

Blinded and mourning two sons, 33-year-old Etab Jalawy knows all too well the horror of these weapons.

In January 2015, she and her family decided to flee the Islamic State’s occupation of Baiji. Heading off-road and through the desert to avoid the militants, their car struck an IED, killing two of her young boys in the explosion. Dazed and wounded, Jalawy survived, briefly taking in the chaotic, smoking aftermath before passing out.

“There was blood everywhere. Then everything went black,” she said.

At the hospital, doctors told her that shrapnel had torn through her eyes, seriously damaging each retina and optic nerve as well as the surrounding tissue. Lying in the ward, disfigured by the blast and grieving for her sons, Jalawy’s sight became increasingly blurred until it disappeared altogether. Surgeons said her vision could be saved, but the impoverished family was unable to afford the life-changing operation.

One of Etab Jalawy’s sons who died in an IED explosion

A relative shares a photo of one of Etab Jalawy’s sons on Nov. 2, 2021. The boy died in the IED explosion that blinded his mother.

Uprooted from their home, she and her family moved into a derelict house without running water and electricity, barely able to afford a meal.

“My children would cry whenever they saw me,” Jalawy said. “They wouldn’t come near. They couldn’t look at my face. No one could.”

Following the Islamic State’s expulsion from Baiji later that year, the family returned to their ruined community. For Jalawy, everything had changed.

“I’ve been robbed of seeing my children, of seeing my parents, of seeing my home,” Jalawy said. “I just want my sight back. I want my life back.”

There are other scars too. Stuck at home, unable to see or work, the tragic accident has taken a severe psychological toll on Jalawy, who said she is consumed by frustration, tedium, and a sense of helplessness.

“ISIS destroyed my life,” Jalawy said. “They destroyed my future.”

“The doctors told me, ‘It can’t be treated. Just go and sit in your house.’ If I had the money, I would travel outside of Iraq to get treatment, but I don’t.”

Sitting in her home, wrapped in an ochre headscarf, she pauses as a muezzin’s call to prayer echoes over the devastated community. Nearby homes lie in rubble; others are pockmarked by gunfire. Under her breath, she whispers a prayer.

“ISIS destroyed my life,” Jalawy said afterward. “They destroyed my future.”

Not only did the terrorist group lay mines after conquering territory, but as it lost ground, in an act of supreme nihilism, militants would booby trap civilian infrastructure, such as schools, homes, and hospitals. Objects as mundane as pickle jars, cellphones, and children’s toys were rigged to make improvised bombs. Many remain to this day, unexploded.

But it is not just IEDs that continue to plague Baiji. Prolonged clashes between pro-government forces and the Islamic State destroyed much of the town, leaving a terrifying number of unexploded remnants in its aftermath.

Baiji’s ravaged power plant

Baiji’s ravaged power plant is seen through a hole in a wall on Nov. 2, 2021.

More than six years after the militants were ousted, Baiji’s railway station remains a derelict mess of shattered glass and twisted metal. Fierce fighting devastated the power plant on the town’s barren outskirts. Its small, remaining coterie of employees still come to work each day, navigating craters and shell casings on the desolate road to this vast, gutted complex—though little work can be done amid the ruins.

Checkpoints aren’t manned by federal forces but instead by Iran-backed Shiite militias. These groups helped the state recapture Baiji before taking control of the area, looting the refinery and subjecting fleeing civilians to torture and other ill-treatment with impunity—a pattern repeated across the country and another reason that displaced people aren’t returning. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mainly Sunnis, remain interned in camps across the north after fleeing fighting in 2016.

Children, prone to picking up and playing with explosive remnants, made up half of civilian casualties last year.

Today, Baiji exemplifies the vicious tragedy of urban warfare, which has become an increasingly common pattern of violence in modern conflicts, affecting more than 50 million people worldwide. The threats endured by Baiji’s population are repeated far beyond the town. The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor’s latest data shows that landmines and explosive remnants of war are causing an “exceptionally high numbers of casualties”—­more than 7,000 dead and wounded worldwide in 2020, a fifth higher than the previous year. That’s almost 20 people killed or injured every day.

“[W]hen medical systems are drained by the cost of attending to mine [and explosive remnants of war] casualties, and when countries must spend money clearing mines rather than paying for education, it is clear that these weapons not only cause appalling human suffering, but that they are also a lethal barrier to [development] and post-conflict reconstruction,” the report said.

Civilians account for the majority of victims, particularly in areas where poverty forces people to take risks in contaminated areas. And children, prone to picking up and playing with explosive remnants, made up half of civilian casualties last year. This grim toll is being driven by homemade bombs—such as the jerrycans pulled out around Baiji—rather than conventional ones.


A Halo Trust employee spray-paints a sandbag.

A Halo Trust employee spray-paints a skull and crossbones onto sandbags, which will be placed around an unexploded shell, found by workmen on Baiji’s ruined outskirts, on Nov. 3, 2021.

A deminer prepares to go into a residential area.

A deminer prepares to go into a residential area on the edge of Baiji, Iraq, after the presence of an unexploded mortar round was reported on Nov. 1, 2021.

Despite mounting casualties, aid cutbacks are depleting the coffers for mine clearance in Iraq.

Between 2014 and 2015, Western funding for clearance, risk education, and victim assistance there increased by more than 40 percent following the Islamic State’s ascendancy, swelling from $36 million to almost $52 million, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. This peaked in 2017 at more than $203 million but has been shrinking ever since—at the last count, pared back to almost half of that sum.

“Overall, aid to Iraq is decreasing, not just in terms of demining,” said Michel Rentenaar, the Dutch ambassador to Iraq whose country is among the leading donors to mine action. “There is a general reluctance to keep doing this for a long time. In the next few years, the relationship between the international community and Iraq is going to change.”

Privately, some donors said they hope that reducing funds will spur Baghdad to cover more welfare and development costs. In addition, last year’s disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised uncomfortable questions about the quantity of taxpayers’ money that Western nations are willing to funnel into foreign nation-building.

Such political sensitivities around overseas aid budgets mean that governments also want more bang for their buck. Removing explosives is an expensive business, so politicians eager to please their domestic constituencies in Western donor countries may instead choose to fund an overseas school, health center, or sanitation project, which on paper tend to reach and benefit more people than a demining project with the same price tag—regardless of how crucial and life-saving the latter can be.

Above all, there is a sense that the Iraqi state—bolstered by immense oil revenues yet beset by graft and a bloated civil service—should be shouldering more responsibility.

“This is one of the main points in our discussions with the Iraqi authorities: You need to step up to the plate and allocate larger budgets to this,” Rentenaar said. “The international community is just not going to fund, ad infinitum, a country that pumps a billion dollars of oil out of the ground every week.”

Yet deminers worry that Baghdad won’t cover the growing gap. “It’s entirely feasible that the Iraqi government will not put its hand into its own pocket,” Moynan said. Aid groups doing similar work in Iraq—the Danish Refugee Council, Humanity & Inclusion, the ICRC, the Mines Advisory Group—all report drops in funding.

The United States also hopes to hand the baton to Baghdad, but for now, it has pledged to maintain current levels of demining support in Iraq, which have plateaued in recent years following a big drop in 2018 from more than $107 million to $40 million in 2020, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor’s latest data.

“Overall, there is less expenditure from other donors and perhaps also from the Iraqi government,” Matthew Tueller, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Foreign Policy. “For the United States, we are still very much prioritizing dealing with the contamination in areas liberated from ISIS.”

Even as humanitarians remove thousands of explosives each year, they estimate that it will take decades to clear Iraq. If support drops, that time frame will only increase.

Some argue that Washington and its allies bear historical responsibility for clearing explosives. Not only did their warplanes drop these weapons in vast quantities on Mosul, pounding the city with an average of 500 bombs per week in March 2017, but they also started a war in 2003 that helped spawn the extremist group, laying the groundwork for the present disorder.

The U.S. ambassador, however, denies that a sense of culpability is driving the cleanup.

“We don’t sit around having discussions about the debris left by U.S. ordnance that was involved in defeating ISIS,” Tueller said. “We are here doing this because the answer is to help Iraq stand up as a strong, sovereign state.”

But even as humanitarians remove thousands of explosives each year, they estimate that, at current rates, it will take decades to clear Iraq. If support drops, that time frame will only increase, leaving more civilians to endure ordeals like Jalawy’s.

Political instability, red tape, and sporadic outbreaks of violence complicate matters, as does the technical challenge of dealing with IEDs and booby traps in urban settings. Another issue is that Iraq’s national authority for mine action is often sidelined as it falls within the country’s health ministry, which lacks the clout of other departments, such as the interior and defense ministries. Nor have the lengthy and chaotic delays in forming a new government after the October 2021 election helped matters.


A muezzin prays in Iraq.

A muezzin prays with other men at a mosque in Tikrit, Iraq, on Nov. 2, 2021, a city 35 miles south of Baiji and once the power base of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

While northern and western regions formerly held by the Islamic State have benefited from clearance for several years now, little attention has been given to the south. That region is afflicted by vast amounts of explosive contamination—anti-tank and anti-personnel minefields as well as ordnance launched by various armies’ air and ground forces from the 1980s onward.

“There are a number of factors that force the donor nations to look north, not south,” Moynan said. “These are wars that were fought a long time ago and don’t have the same emotional attachment as perhaps the damage and atrocities by Islamic State.”

Highlighting, and then realizing, the potential of places freed from land mines’ menace is key to keeping donors and the Iraqi government involved. “There needs to be something in it for them,” said Rentenaar, whose country is among the few to have actually maintained its support for explosives removal. “That will help young people get jobs so they don’t join shady, radical organizations or migrate out of the country. Then that could be a trigger for the authorities to allocate budgets to demining,” he added.

Yet in the desert outside Baiji, a secret site for storing unearthed IEDs hints at the scale of the challenge ahead.


A soldier’s helmet lies by an unexploded mortar round.

A soldier’s helmet lies by an unexploded mortar round on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 4, 2021. The Iraqi army recaptured the city from the Islamic State more than five years ago, but dangerous debris from the fighting remains.

One afternoon last November, Mohammed Salman, a Halo Trust supervisor, turned off the highway and got out of his car as a keen wind whipped across the wasteland. Nearby, sand amassed around the burned out wreckage of a military vehicle.

Salman and his colleague approached a large tarpaulin stretched over the ground and pulled it back to expose dozens of unexploded IEDs, harvested from the ground elsewhere and then stashed in this pit ahead of their removal and destruction.

Each one of these nightmarish, multicolored weapons was a 20-liter blue, yellow, or green jerrycan filled with ammonium nitrate and attached to a pressure plate—among the 2,200 removed by the Halo Trust around Baiji alone.

“Armed groups planted these in a belt around the town to prevent its liberation,” Salman said. “It will take a long time to clear the area.”

The impact on the civilian population—whether from an actual blast or the fear of one—is disastrous.

“They prevent people from moving freely,” he added. “They stop children from playing outside and farmers from using their land.”

The setting sun illuminated a chain of rocky hills to the east as black smoke billowed from the gas flare at Baiji’s oil refinery, an eerie beacon blazing above a scarred land.

“An explosion can kill you instantly,” Salman said. “Sometimes, you can’t find the remains.”

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures. Twitter: @jacklosh

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