In Iraq minefields, an old war leaves a menacing legacy

BASRA, Iraq, April 24 (Reuters) - The Iraqis who pick over their country's old battlefields for military scrap metal and wiring have few other ways to make a living, but the task comes with enormous risks.

So numerous are the wounds inflicted by mines and ordnance in Jurf al-Milh that the southern Iraqi village is better known as al Bitran, which means "the amputees" in the local dialect.

Hundreds of villagers have lost limbs to mines and unexploded ordnance from the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988.

Al-Bitran, east of the city of Basra, is near the Shatt al-Arab waterway which marks the border with Iran.

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The first victims were mainly sheepherders who took their herds to graze in areas not marked as minefields, even though they were strewn with unexploded bombs and artillery shells.

Sheno Abdullah is one of those who lost a leg in an explosion. "In 1980, when the war began, Iranian planes dropped bombs on our region at dawn, everybody left but a few," he said.

"When the war ended, people returned, but they didn't know that the land was full of mines," he said, speaking at the small mosque where he serves sometimes as muezzin, the one who makes the Muslim call to prayer.

In 1991, the village, like the rest of Iraq, descended deeper into poverty as a result of international sanctions imposed on the country following the occupation of Kuwait.

See inside the village:

Collecting scrap metal and electric wires from military hardware left on the battlefields became a means of livelihood for many in the village, and the result was in increase in the number of people maimed.

"I was out (in the field) to seek my living from God, collecting iron and copper; the kilogram of flour had become so expensive," said Falih, who lost leg and five finger tips in an explosion.

As the number of amputees grew in southern Iraq, a prosthetics and orthotics workshop opened in 1995 in Basra with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, providing artificial limbs to around 8,000 patients.

The workshop makes up to 50 prosthetic parts a month. About a third of the patients who come to the center lost limbs because of diabetes, 10 percent suffered various kinds of accidents, with the rest mainly war and war-related casualties, including al-Bitran villagers, said one of the centers' directors, Mohsen al-Sayed.

Shi'ite paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilisation began a demining campaign last month near al-Bitran, using bulldozers and specialized vehicles to clear the desert area.

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli, Editing by William Maclean)