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UNMAS divers clear Fallujah's Iron Bridge

UNMAS divers clear Fallujah's Iron Bridge

By Pehr Lodhammar

Fallujah, Iraq, 26 April 2018 – Driving southwest from Baghdad toward Fallujah recently, I thought about our objective for the day.  Strangely enough, I was on guard against my own optimism.  I had been to the Fallujah many times, but today would be a first for me and the teams representing the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Iraq.

My business is explosive hazard management.  It’s tough enough on dry land.  This day, much of the work would be undertaken by highly trained international divers working in near zero visibility and against a strong current, tethered to pilings near-and-around Fallujah’s Iron Bridge. 

The bridge is not only an important economic and social asset but can mean the difference between ‘life and death’. 

The only maternity hospital in a 50 km radius is located 20 meters from Iron Bridge yet, as of the closure, patients could travel two hours for what normally would be a five-minute trip. In one recent month, the hospital recorded more than 400 procedures including many highly complex.

The bridge also provides direct access to the city’s central market with its more than 1,000 stalls and shops relying on suppliers. Without the Iron Bridge, the only option for many suppliers is the next-closest span serving 30,000 vehicles per day – on weekends. 

After work to clear Iron Bridge of explosive hazards concluded in 2017, with repairs beginning, newly detected Improvised Explosive Devices – IEDs – were spotted near the bridge pilings. Work stopped.  The operation this day had been weeks in the planning – all in all a complex operation.  Even though I am not a diver, I can identify with operators working above and below the water line and can admire them for expertise that made a challenging task seem routine. 

During their week-long mission, our teams would find and clear two plastic containers filled with home-made explosives and rigged with no fewer than five detonators.  The teams would neutralize the charges using safe, environmentally friendly chemical methods. 

With the clearance complete, the work on the missing span, destroyed during the conflict in Fallujah, can resume.  It will take a month to repair.  Fallujah is that close to having its Iron Bridge back in service.