It was one of the strangest letters that Iraqi Kurdish man, Fathi Shboul, had ever had. It read: Your mission and my mission are never-ending. I lay the bombs and you dismantle them. Let’s see which of us dies first.
Shboul is a volunteer with the Iraqi Kurdish military. He had been defusing improvised explosive devices left behind by the extremist group known as the Islamic State when he found the letter, which obviously came from the opposition. Shboul has been doing this job for about two years now and when asked how many bombs he has dismantled, he replies that he has 923 notches on the side of his car.
The 20-year-old carries a 35-meter rope and a mobile phone with no battery in it – he uses it to defuse bombs but won’t give away the secret of how - wherever he goes. And he says that military colleges everywhere should learn from the way that the IS group lays its IEDs.
Because besides the conventional war, the IS group and the Iraqi Kurdish military are also fighting a different sort of war, one that involves the laying of, and then defusing of, IEDs. As soon as the extremist group is driven out of any given area, the second part of the fight begins: Against the many IEDs the group leaves behind.
“The speed at which they lay these IEDs is unbelievable,” says Mohammed Ahmed, the head of the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency. “There are some areas that were only under the IS group’s control for a week. When they leave the area a week later, we find the place is absolutely full of IEDs.”
As has been previously documented in other parts of Iraq, the IS group is fiendishly creative with their IEDs. Anything at all in the areas that the IS group controlled could explode – bombs have been planted in everything from cooking pots, pictures, books, the Koran, dead animals, vehicles and even the IS group’s flags. Every time the de-mining team dismantle another booby trap they discover new methods and they learn more; their teamwork relies on paying careful attention and depends on their accumulated experience.
Watch an Iraqi Kurdish de-mining team at work.
As Ahmed explains: “There are certain norms when it comes to building IEDs. But the IS group will, for instance, use all methods of detonation in one device. So whoever is working on it becomes confused. It is impossible to tell if this IED is motion-sensitive, electronically activated, ticking, or if it is attached to trip wires.”
Removing the IEDs is done by three different forces in Iraqi Kurdistan – the de-mining group, the military engineers and a third group of volunteers. The de-mining group has 1,418 staff and 1,050 are apparently employed on a temporary basis. Since June 2014 when the IS group took control of nearby Mosul, official figures say that the teams have defused close to 8,000 bombs; five of their members have been killed on the job.
“We face danger daily,” says Saber Saeed Saleh, a captain in one of the Iraqi Kurdish military’s teams of engineers, who started this work after six months of training in Germany. “When the Iraqi Kurdish military attack, we are always right behind the first vehicle to clean the roads as we go. Sometimes we also have to fight because IS members have hidden in tunnels near where IEDs are placed. At the same time, we have to defuse the bombs.”
It sounds like terrifying work; and Saleh says it is even more frightening when they find chemical substances inside the IEDs. But it is worthwhile, he notes.
“We expose ourselves to danger to protect the lives of our friends,” the 27-year-old concludes proudly.