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Munitions Clearance Program Making Iraq Safer

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

HUNTSVILLE, Ala., Sept. 12, 2005 – Iraq is safer, thanks to the efforts of a team that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of tons of captured enemy ammunition.

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Members of a team from the Huntsville, Ala., U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center prepare to detonate captured enemy ammunition at one of the depot sites in Iraq. The team has been able to close three of the original six depot sites since opening them in August 2003. Army photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

In June 2003, military officials in Iraq called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineering and Support Center here, the core of expertise for ordnance and explosives, to handle an estimated 600,000 tons of captured enemy ammunition.

ESC was contacted for two reasons, officials said: coalition military leaders had determined that the amount of munitions was more than the military was prepared to handle, and securing a stockpile that large would divert military assets from the main mission of fighting the insurgency.

An ESC assessment team was sent to Iraq, and it submitted a proposal in July 2003, detailing what ESC could do and how the unit would do it, Stahl said. By Aug. 8 of the same year, contracts had been awarded. By Sept. 11, the first demolition was conducted, said Mike Stahl, program manager for ESC's Coalition Munitions Clearance Program.

"Everybody tells me that no, that was not an arbitrary date; that was a goal,'" he said.

Six self-sustaining depot sites were established to secure and demolish the munitions that were already in coalition forces' possession, Stahl said. The goal of beginning demolition from these sites by Dec. 1, 2003, was met, and to date about 406,000 tons of munitions have been destroyed through ESC and military disposal operations.

"No, 200,000 tons didn't go missing," he explained. Rather, the initial estimate of 600,000 tons proved to be too high. "I am convinced that there was never 600,000 tons there -- that the 400,000 tons is much, much closer, much more accurate," he said. Stahl said that Arlington near Bayji, the biggest depot, housed 50,000 tons.

Just as important as destroying the large caches at the depot sites, was "collapsing" the smaller sites, or consolidating their munitions at the depots, to keep the munitions from insurgents, Stahl said. The goal, he added, was to collapse all the sites by Sept. 30, 2004.

"If we could get everything outside ... collapsed into the six depots, then we had control of it," he said. The team provided its own security at the depots, and collapsing the smaller sites meant soldiers would no longer be needed to guard those locations. "We were securing the depots so it didn't require military personnel and they were freed up to the job that they really needed to do," Stahl said.

Transporting these caches to the depots left the teams vulnerable to insurgents on the roads, so, when possible, they destroyed the munitions in place.

The team's mission, however, does not account for unexploded ordnance, known as "UXO," that was deemed unsafe to move, Stahl said. "There were a lot of those sites left," he said. "There still ... is an extensive UXO mission." That mission belongs to the military explosive ordnance disposal teams in country. ESC, however, has six 25-person mobile teams to clean up UXO sites assigned to them by the military. These teams will continue their mission for the foreseeable future, Stahl said.

The team met its goal of collapsing the smaller caches collapsed by Sept. 30, and has destroyed all of the munitions in three of the six depots. That took about two years, Stahl said, allowing those three depots to be shut down.

The CMC program also is on schedule to close another depot soon, Stahl said. While the remaining two depots, Arlington and Buckmaster, near Tikrit, will remain open as legacy depots, disposal operations are expected to wrap up in the first quarter of fiscal 2006. The ESC will manage operations at those depots for at least a year, Stahl said.

ESC began the job with four primary missions, two of which have been completed: replacing active duty military and beginning the destruction of captured enemy ammunition, Stahl said. The other two missions - management of the CEA from "cradle-to-grave" and hiring and training local Iraqis in the safe handling and disposal of such munitions - are ongoing, he added.

Also ongoing is the focus on safety.

Between the 600 government and contract workers and the 800 local Iraqis working on the project, the combined rate of accidents that resulted in lost time is about .23 per 200,000 hours worked, Stahl said. Though that is far below the Army's standard of 2 per 200,000 hours worked, he added, there has been an on-site fatality. A contractor was killed in an explosive accident on site during the Fourth of July weekend.

The team has lost nine Americans to hostile actions, as well, Stahl said. Those killed were part of a three-bus convoy that was attacked by insurgents on its way to the Buckmaster site in December, Stahl said. Several Iraqi workers also were killed in that attack.

Though 38,000 tons of munitions still are stored at depots, only 24,000 tons will be destroyed, Stahl said. The remainder will be retained for the new Iraqi army, he explained.

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Related Sites:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Click photo for screen-resolution imageSmoke from the detonation of a captured enemy ammunitions stockpile fills the air at a depot site in Iraq. In August 2003, six depot sites housed hundreds of thousands of tons of captured enemy ammunition. To date, a U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center team from Huntsville, Ala., has been able to close three of those sites. Army photo  
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