WASHINGTON – A top American military commander has declassified 81 locations of unexploded bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition in the battle to oust Islamic State militants from the Iraqi city of Mosul. And officials are considering similar disclosures for other areas, in a rare step to help aid groups and contractors clear explosives from war-ravaged Iraqi cities.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, in a newly released memo, said he was providing a list of geographic coordinates "for the sake of public safety." The list, he said, includes the type of munition and the latitude and longitude of the expected location, "so that duly authorized experts may more easily locate, render safe, and dispose of possible coalition unexploded ordnance."
Townsend told a small group of reporters in Baghdad last month that he would seek a way for the military to help groups find bombs that didn't detonate after they were dropped in coalition airstrikes in Mosul.
The military does not normally release that list of classified data, although there are ongoing international and U.S. programs, with millions of dollars in aid, that work to clean up explosives around the world, including minefields.
The coalition's unexploded bombs are part of a wider problem in Mosul. The bulk of the explosives remaining around the city were hidden by IS fighters to be triggered by the slightest movement, even picking up a seemingly innocent child's toy, lifting a vacuum cleaner, or opening an oven door. The effort could continue wreaking destruction on Iraq's second-largest city even though IS was defeated after a nine-month battle.
U.S. Embassy officials and contractors hired to root out the hidden explosives have described the extent of the problem as unprecedented, saying IS littered the city with booby traps that will likely take years, if not decades, to uncover and clear.
Officials with the State Department's conventional weapons destruction program said that right now they are focusing on areas in Iraq that have been liberated from Islamic State insurgents. But there are ongoing discussions with the military about getting similar data for unexploded bombs in Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit and other locations. Townsend's decision came just days before he turned over command of the Iraq and Syria wars to Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, after spending about a year in the war zone.
Sol Black, the State Department's program manager, told The Associated Press that Townsend's action was "one of the fastest turnarounds" for that type of request that he'd seen. He said the data is being shared with Iraqi authorities and will feed into mapping software that tracks the explosive remnants of war.
Officials are still waiting for the full survey to be completed in Mosul before they have an accurate estimate of how many explosives still remain there. It is, said Black, "one of the most heavily contaminated places that we've seen." As an example, he said, Janus Global Operations, a contracting company hired to find and remove hidden explosive devices and unexploded bombs from Iraqi cities, found 137 explosives in one water pipeline in Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul.
The priorities, said Black and Stan Brown, office director for the State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, include clearing explosives from hospitals, water pump lines, power stations and the electrical grid, sanitation systems and schools. They said that a number of girls' schools were bombed and destroyed by IS so they are likely to hold a number of explosives.
As much as 90 percent of west Mosul's old city was reduced to ruins, destroyed by the IS militants who occupied it for nearly three years — and by the campaign of airstrikes and ground combat needed to retake the city.
It has been littered with hidden explosives that officials say became far more innovative and sophisticated as time went on. The explosives range from basic pressure plates in the roads or doorways to small devices, similar to ones that turn on a refrigerator light when the door is opened. They're tucked into dresser drawers or smoke detectors, or buried under large piles of rubble that were pushed aside as Iraqi forces cleared roads to move through the city.
Looking ahead, Black said an advance team is now on the ground in Tal Afar, which also has been liberated from IS. They are working with local Iraqis to identify what areas or facilities need to be cleared first.