The Iraqi government has encountered a major problem with people who fled their homes to escape approaching ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces. Many of these civilians have been refugees for nearly five years. Overall more than five million Iraqis fled to avoid living under ISIL rule. Over a million are still unable to return home and most of these civilians are from cities and large towns that ISIL occupied for at least a few years. ISIL leadership became increasingly obsessed with punishing civilians who fled ISIL controlled areas, especially those who had tried to live under ISIL rule but found it intolerable. ISIL leaders were further incensed when they found that most civilians fleeing ISIL occupied areas willingly provided the government with information on ISIL operations and some even volunteered to help organize intelligence operations inside ISIL territory. While ISIL developed gruesome ways to torture and execute “traitors” they captured or thought they had captured when an innocent civilian was seized, it was eventually decided that execution and torture were not sufficient punishment for such bad behavior. By 2016 it was apparent that ISIL had decided on a suitable punishment. This consisted of planting hidden bombs in the homes or businesses of departed civilians, especially those who were known (or suspected) to have later cooperated with the government against ISIL. As a result over a million internal refugees will not return home because the homes, and the neighborhoods they are in, have not yet been cleared of such explosive traps.
The worst situation is in Mosul where the situation is complicated by the many buildings that were rigged with these explosive traps but were then destroyed by artillery or smart bombs by the advancing Iraqi forces. There are still over seven million tons of such rubble and debris waiting to be cleared and that task is complicated by the fact that most (at least 60 percent) of the remaining explosive traps are buried under that rubble. While some of these explosive traps were set off when the building was reduced to rubble, many were not. Even if the triggering mechanism was destroyed, the explosives and detonators remain. Clearing such rubble piles is dangerous and expensive. The fact that the rubble occupies prime city real estate further complicates the situation. None of the dangers are theoretical because EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams have already found and removed (or destroyed in place) 44,000 “explosive hazards.” Less than half these hazards were explosive traps, but that was enough to supply EOD analysts with sufficient data to estimate how many more of these hazards there were still waiting to be found. While this is pretty scary for the rubble clearance crews and EOD teams, the risks are also well known to many of the remaining refugees. Many have lost friends or family to these ISIL bombs and refuse to return until certain the bombs are gone. That clearance activity is going slower than expected as the true extent of the ISIL explosive traps effort was discovered. It was long known that ISIL had been building large stockpiles of explosives and other bomb-making materials. In areas, they occupied there were always workshops or factories devoted to turning out these devices by the thousands. By 2017 government air strikes put these bomb-making operations near the top of the target list. That reduced the number of such bombs deployed but the number of bombs found all over cities like Mosul was staggering. More of them were found in key installations, like hospitals and government offices. In one Mosul hospital, captured largely intact, over 4,000 of these explosive devices were found and removed. It was no secret that ISIL was rigging the place with bombs but the number of bombs placed was a surprise.
Many bodies found in the rubble were ISIL fighters wearing explosive vests. The advance into Mosul was led by Iraqi special operations troops and Kurdish forces from the north. All of these troops were trained to call in American and Iraqi air support rather than try to capture a building by fighting inside the building. That meant tactics that emphasizing discovery of where in the building the ISIL fighters were, and and then directing the smart bombs or artillery to that location so that the resistance could be eliminated and the advance continued. While these tactics sped up they advance and reduced casualties among the attackers, the advance could be tracked from the air by noting where the fresh piles of rubble were. Over 10,000 explosive vests have been found in that rubble so far, not all of them being worn by anyone. In addition, these dead ISIL defenders were surrounded by grenades, RPG warheads and all manner of explosive devices to be used for a last stand. Such tactics have after effects and now Iraqi analysts see the explosives clearing job as taking over a decade in Mosul.
Many Iraqi leaders saw this coming. Back in early 2017, it was noted that many Anbar province (in far western Iraq) refugees were increasingly reluctant to return to their homes that had been recently in ISIL controlled territory. Refugees are cautious about returning because ISIL had left many nasty surprises behind. Some of the recent returnees went to cities that have been free of ISIL for over a year but were not yet “safe”. Ramadi is a good example. This city is 120 kilometers west of Baghdad and astride the Euphrates river. The city was declared “liberated” at the end of the December 2015 but it wasn’t until two months later that the city was safe enough to allow any refugees back in. Meanwhile, ISIL was able to survive in several of the many towns and villages west of the city and along the river. The army spent months clearing all the landmines and explosive traps ISIL left behind. Since the ISIL offensive in mid-2014 some four million Iraqis have fled their homes. Most have not returned yet. About ten percent of those refugees are recent and from Mosul. Fighting with ISIL continues in western Anbar province, especially along the Syrian border.