Weapons and explosives confiscated by Iraqi security forces from Islamic State militants in Ramadi in December 2015, on display at an Iraqi army base.

Weapons and explosives confiscated by Iraqi security forces from Islamic State militants in Ramadi in December 2015, on display at an Iraqi army base. AP photo

Retaking A Booby-Trapped City, With US Help

Several months after Iraqi troops flushed ISIS from Ramadi, the work of making the city safe is just beginning.

In the seven months that ISIS controlled Ramadi, its militants laced the Iraqi city with bombs and other booby traps intended to maim and kill government troops. When they were finally flushed out in December, they abandoned caches of explosives and other weapons. Now an American firm has arrived to figure out just how much unexploded ordnance is strewn across the city, and to teach Iraqis how to spot it.

The training, which will ultimately allow Iraqis to disarm and remove the bombs themselves, is the first step in helping Ramadi residents return to their city.

“As rapidly as we can make this happen safely, is as rapidly as the people who have been displaced from their homes and from the city can begin to return to it,” said David Johnson, vice president for strategic development and Washington operations at Janus Global Operations. “That’s an integral and important part of the political process and allowing the Sunni population to go back to their homes.”

Earlier this month, the State Department awarded the Tennessee-based firm a 12-month, $5 million contract to do initial training and to survey unexploded bombs, abandoned explosives, and IEDs in neighborhoods of Ramadi and the city’s water station in Tamim.

A team of Janus trainers, including former U.S. and foreign military with special skills, are already in Iraq, and could begin teaching locals how to spot explosives as soon as next week, Johnson said. Bomb-detecting dogs are en route and more trainers will arrive soon “so we can ramp this up as quickly we can.”

The 7,000-person company has offices around the world. “We’re not a huge company, but we’re the largest one on the planet that does this kind of work,” Johnson said.

In Bosnia and Laos, the State Department is paying Janus to clear the explosive detritus of wars long past. In Iraq, the fighting is still going on.

“What’s distinctive about what we’re working on in Ramadi is that it is very close to the line of contact,” Johnson said. “The security situation is something that we’re going to pay a great deal more attention to than we do in places that are largely pacified.”

They’re also going to be dealing with a different variety of unexploded ordnance. Unlike the manufactured and military-issue landmines and other weapons found on many former battlefields, ISIS left behind mostly improvised explosives.

“We’re also dealing with an irregular force, so the types of abandoned munitions...are going to be potentially different,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to be paying a great deal of attention to the technical challenge of this as well.”

The exact number of IEDs in Ramadi is unknown, but the city likely has a higher proportion of IEDs than other former battlefields, said Steven Costner, deputy director of the State Department’s Weapons Removal and Abatement office, which is overseeing the project in Ramadi.

ISIS made frequent use of the homebrew devices as it took over and held Ramadi, according to the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency, the arm of the Pentagon that oversees its counter-IED efforts. In the initial assault, militants used tunnel bombs and vehicle-borne IEDs. Later, they emplaced “belts of IEDs” in the surrounding rural areas.

Meanwhile, some 60,000 Ramadi residents fled their city. So far, only an estimated 10,000 people have been able to return due to the large number of IEDs and other explosives.

“Right now, what we’re seeing is that Iraq is dealing with a large number of civilians that are fleeing population centers, such as Ramadi, Mosul, [and] Sinjar,” said Natalie Wazir, the senior program manager for Near Eastern affairs in State’s weapons removal office.

“As these internally displaced persons begin to leave these cities, they’re going to other areas where they’re encountering explosive remnants of war,” Wazir said. “And as they return to their homes, they’re also experiencing these hazards.”

As well, she said, international humanitarian organizations have had a difficult time getting into the city to conduct assessments because of the security situation.

Janus’ assessment and training project will give officials a better idea about how many IEDs and bombs are in Ramadi and how long it will take to remove them, Wazir said.

As the Iraqi soldiers moved through Ramadi expelling ISIS, military technicians cleared IEDs on roadways so troops could maneuver. Now Janus will train the the Iraqis how to assess the remaining IEDs and explosives in other areas of the city. Eventually, as their competency grows, the company will train them to disarm the bombs.

A Growing Priority

Since 1993, State’s Weapons Removal and Abatement office has spent $2.5 billion to clear landmines and other explosives in more than 90 countries. The amount of money being spent on weapons destruction is “going up and is becoming a higher priority for us and other countries,” Costner said.

Afghanistan has consumed the largest chunk of that money, nearly $400 million (as of 2014, the latest data available) to destroy mines and unexploded bombs. State has spent the second-most money in Iraq, $282 million, and work there has been proceeding faster in recent years, according to State Department officials. It’s not all ISIS-related; teams are still clearing landmines from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and bombs from 1991’s Desert Storm.

As for the Ramadi project, State is working to secure an additional $15 million for the project from other countries, U.S. officials said. On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates pledged $10 million to repair infrastructure in Ramadi and other Iraqi cities damaged by ISIS.

During a recent visit to Washington, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggested that NATO might also help clear IEDs in Iraq.

“Improvised explosive devices was the biggest killer of Iraqi forces when they re-took Ramadi from ISIL,” Stoltenberg said at an April 6 Atlantic Council event. “They are a threat which NATO has extensive experience in countering. “Our current training program responds to this urgent need and we should do more for Iraq,” he  said, touting the alliance’s training of Iraq officers in Jordan.