The jihadists still sow death long after they depart, and as Iraqi Kurdish forces regain ground, they — and the civilians returning to their homes — face the threat of unexploded bombs and booby traps.
“These people were very imaginative, like devils,” said Marwan Sydo Hisn, a Kurdish bomb disposal expert currently based in Sinuni, a town in the northwestern Sinjar area that was recaptured from IS fighters in late December.
“Look at this one,” he said, thumbing through pictures on his smart phone. “We found this massage belt that they had stuffed with a small quantity of explosives, perfectly put back together and set up to explode on the next person to turn it on.”
One consisted of TNT concealed inside a TV set triggered by the use of a PlayStation controller. Another contraption was a gold ring conspicuously left lying on the floor and rigged to kill its finder.
Some houses were webbed with trip wires and lines connecting bombs to doorknobs.
“We have a list of 24 different types of devices they used in this area,” said Darwish Mussa Ali, another explosives expert.
He and his colleague Sydo are both from the Kurdish “asayesh” security service and are the only two experts tasked with clearing explosives from the entire northern side of Mount Sinjar, a 60-kilometre-long (40-mile) ridge near the Syrian border.
They were dispatched from their base in Jalawla, at the southeastern end of the Kurds’ 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) frontline with the jihadists.
“In 24 days, we found 410 devices amounting to more than five tonnes, mostly IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” Mussa said, referring to the homemade bombs laid on roadsides to target vehicles and hamper any military advance.
They received specialised training from American explosive ordnance disposal units before the 2011 US pullout from Iraq, but have very little equipment to perform their dangerous task.
“We have no special armour, no robots, no scramblers for mobile communications — just our eyes, our experience and a pair of pliers,” Sydo said.
Most of his equipment fits in a blue cooler bag, where he also keeps a bundle of detonators, a box-cutter and tape.
– Lack of experience –
Their harvest is kept in a damp storage room adjacent to a grocer’s and protected only by an old iron rolling door on which the word “danger” is spray-painted in large yellow letters.
“Just walk where I walk,” said Hadi Khalaf Jirgo, a member of the Kurdish peshmerga security forces who has been assisting the pair.
A cigarette dangled from his lips as he reeled out the wire for a controlled detonation of some of the roadside bombs they continue to find, sometimes at a rate of 30 a day.
The blast sent a cloud rising from a gully against the backdrop of Mont Sinjar’s snow-covered slopes.
The area was wrested back from the jihadists about a month ago but military activity remains intense and civilians are returning faster than authorities can handle.
In the first days after the northern side of Mount Sinjar was retaken, eight people were killed in three explosions, Sydo said.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency lost four of its staff in a blast during a clearing operation in the nearby Zumar area in October.
“Large areas that were recaptured are still not cleared. With regards to IEDs, we have not received special devices and equipment,” said IKMAA director Ako Aziz.
“Our teams work on the basic experience that they have learned from military engineering regiment teams, which is really not adequate to deal with IEDs,” he said.
IEDs are the leading cause of death among the more than 750 peshmerga killed since IS spearheaded a militant offensive that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June.
IKMAA has stepped up its awareness effort with billboards telling civilians what to do when they find a suspicious object.
But there are only a handful of specialist teams operating across a huge area and struggling to keep up with the fast-changing military map.
The unconventional nature of the devices planted by IS jihadists also slows down the clearing effort.
“They seem to have a high level of expertise in planting those devices, they have some experienced people. So to defuse those devices, you also need a high level of experience,” Aziz said. (AFP)