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who let the dogs out? iraqi govt. calls in man’s best friend as violence rises

Mustafa Habib
As levels of violence and extremist bomb threats mount in Iraq, the government comes up with another clever idea to protect public safety. But is this plan as flawed as the US$85 million worth of fake bomb…
4.07.2013  |  Baghdad
An Iraqi army K-9 unit at work in 2010. Pic: Getty
An Iraqi army K-9 unit at work in 2010. Pic: Getty

The “sonar bomb detectors” bought for millions by the Iraqi government and used by Iraqi security forces supposedly to detect concealed explosives have long been exposed as useless. In fact, the head of the British company that makes the ADE-651s, as they are also known, was sentenced to ten years in prison for fraud, in the UK in April this year.

But now, in the face of mounting violence, the Iraqi government have come up with another clever plan to detect bombs and keep the general public safe. On may 20, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally admitted that the sonar detectors, bought at an estimated cost of somewhere between US$85 and US$120 million, did not work.

As the British newspaper, The Independent, explained as far back as 2010: “The bomb-detectors, known as "sonars" to Iraqis, are hand-held devices with a "wand" that is supposed to twitch if there are explosives or weapons present. It is meant to work on the same principle as water-divining rods and has no power source, relying instead on the static electricity generated by the movement of the person holding it. The British and American governments, numerous independent experts and repeated tests have shown that the ADE-651, manufactured by the ATSC company in the UK, does not work.” And, the reporter continued, “Many Iraqi policemen have ceased to believe that the ADE-651 works.”

Instead the Iraqi government now plans to use sniffer dogs. “We have discovered that sonar detectors are efficient in only around 20 to 57 percent of cases and that percentage is only possible if the soldier using the detector is well trained,” al-Maliki said. “So the government is trying to find the best possible means to detect explosive. Which is why it has opted for police dogs.”

“The Ministry [of Interior] is looking at the possibility of importing sniffer dogs from different places,” a senior source at the Ministry confirmed to NIQASH. “This is according to a new plan by the government.”

Even the numbers add up. The New York Times reported in 2011 that each of the “sonar detectors” cost between US$16,500 to $60,000 whereas a trained dog costs between US$8,000 toUS$18,000.

However this plan to use dogs for bomb detection work is not as simple as it first sounds. Local experts say these kinds of working dogs need all kinds of things – everything from special foods and veterinary care to trained handlers to moderate weather conditions.

“The hot weather in Iraq, when the summer temperatures reach 45 degrees, makes it very difficult for dogs to work,” Amjad Fares, a Baghdad police dog trainer who also owns a pet store, where he specializes in canines, told NIQASH. “Sniffer dogs can work for long hours in the winter but in summer they can’t work efficiently for more than two hours. After that, they need to rest for at least two hours.”

Fares says Iraq needs the right kind of working dogs and he favours German shepherds, then dogs from the US. “A working dog starts training at eight months and if he is well trained, he can continue to work for eight years,” Fares says. “But these dogs need skilled handlers too.”

Fares then talks about how he visited the canine unit, known as K9, of the Interior Ministry. “One of the dogs in the unit was clearly sick but the soldiers were forcing him to work,” Fares recounts. “One of the soldiers told me how they knew the dog was sick but that transferring him to a veterinary hospital would take a long time and involve a lot of red tape. I know that when the US forces here used dogs, they had one vet for each troop of dogs, who would treat any of the dogs if they became ill.”

An officer from within the unit spoke to NIQASH anonymously. “The withdrawal of US troops a year and a half ago had a big impact on the unit,” he reported. “Iraqi security men are not well qualified to deal with these dogs or to care for them. The US soldiers took really good care of the dogs, feeding them properly and caring for their health. They even used to add ice cubes to their water when it was really hot,” he noted.

“Basically what we need is to make sure the dogs get the right high protein foods and we also need veterinarians to work with the dogs,” the officer said. “that would ensure the safety of the dogs and their work.”

Currently there are bomb detecting dogs deployed at various Iraqi ministry buildings as well as airports. However there are many more checkpoints than that, an estimated 2,000 around Baghdad just to start with. The government plans to have at least two dogs at each checkpoint, which equals an initial 4,000 dogs and, of course, their handlers.

Opposition MP Mathhar al-Janabi, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence told NIQASH he was worried the government might be making the same mistakes they had made when they purchased the fake ADE-651 bomb detectors. “There were also plenty of accusations of administrative and financial corruption around that deal,” al-Janabi says.

“The security forces recently imported 20 sniffer dogs,” he added. “Only to fins the dogs were not trained to detect explosives!” To resolve these kinds of issues, al-Janabi says special committees should be setup to source and purchase the right kind of dogs and to import them from known origins.

However there is also another problem that could emerge should working dogs go into widespread use in Iraq. In Islamic religion, dogs are considered unclean – one piece of scripture says that angels won’t enter a house where a dog is kept - and although a staunch Muslim would not treat canines unkindly, they would not keep a dog as a pet either. There is a dispensation that allows a Muslim to keep a dog if is a working animal.

Most of the hundreds of stray dogs that roam Iraq’s cities are considered dirty and dangerous by locals and the authorities, who run campaigns to eradicate them: these include throwing out scraps of poisoned meat to kill the pests.

Which is why many Iraqis get upset when dogs sniff at them or their luggage at airports or government buildings. For example, religious shrines in places like Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad are under tight security. But security forces tend not to use dogs there because visitors to the shrine are bound to criticise them.

And while the government struggles to overcome the scandal around the bogus sonar detectors and to find some way of keeping the public safe from extremists’ threats, their critics are weighing in. They say that the new plan to import more working dogs is just a desperate attempt to save face. The problem does not lie in the detection of explosives, these critics argue, but in the government’s overall, ineffective security strategy.