Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Spoke to Steve Priestley, Senior Technical Adviser with MAG this evening, ahead of the interview we're going to do in the morning on Five Live.

Steve has just returned from Northern Iraq. Earlier in the year he carried out an assessment of the site near Kifri where my accident happened.

It was the first time I've spoken to him because he's usually out of the country. He filled me in with some interesting pieces of information I hadn't been aware of.

He explained that the Iraqi defensive positions had been reinforced in the run up to the war, with fresh mines laid to bolster existing minefields. Steve said the Iraqis were fairly rigorous in marking out mined areas with fences or lengths of razor wire. Therefore to come across an unmarked minefield, as we did, was extremely unusual. "You probably walked into the only unmarked minefield in Northern Iraq," he said.

Just my luck -- but at least now I don't feel quite so much of an idiot.

I'm reassured by the fact that we didn't blindly ignore all the warning signs and plunder headlong into an area that everyone else and his goat knew was thick with mines. We didn't pick up on the danger signals because there weren't any. Steve's explanation also helps to clarify why the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier we were travelling with didn't realise the dangers. If he was used to seeing clearly demarcated minefields he probably didn't expect to accidentally stumble across an unmarked zone. Naive perhaps, but understandable in the circumstances.

Steve's theory is that the Iraqis, under close observation by the Kurds, laid the mines at night, under the cover of darkness. They didn't choose to hang around to carefully mark out the minefields. With the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime just days away and American B52 bombers carrying out regular raids against them, I can't really blame them.

The majority of the devices uncovered when the deminers finally got to work in the area were recently-made Iraqi copies of Soviet designed PMN blast mines. I already knew that it was probably a PMN-type mine that took my foot. Unlike the Soviet-made PMNs, which are sensitive and need to be destroyed in situ (as I saw in Cambodia), the Iraqi versions are relatively easy to disarm, making the clearance process quicker.

However, the deminers also found some particularly nasty hidden surprises -- highly deadly Valmara 69 bounding fragmentation mines and 20 litre drums of napalm connected to trip wires and explosive charges.

As difficult as it is for me to comprehend, of all the devices lurking in the area ready to kill and maim it seems I found one of the less lethal -- and for that I'll be forever thankful.

One other piece of good news from Steve -- he says security in Northern Iraq away from Mosul is relatively good at the moment, which increases the likelihood that I'll be able to get over there to film a second documentary after my assignment in Iran in late February.


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