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Detection Dogs Sniff Out Mines and Save Lives in Iraqi Kurdistan

By Bill Outlaw

Karzan Khalid’s grandfather stepped on a buried landmine near Erbil, Iraq, in 1991 and tragically died from his injuries six months later. At a very young age, Khalid learned from his father of the horrible accident that killed his grandfather and decided that his life’s mission would be to find ways to keep others from losing their lives and limbs. Landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have maimed or killed thousands of men, women and children throughout Kurdistan and other areas of Iraq.

“When my beloved grandfather lost his leg and died after stepping on a landmine, I thought that this should not happen. We must find a way to prevent it from happening to others,” Khalid said.

Khalid found a way to help. He began working as a dog handler as a young teenager, and now, at the age of 32, has worked his way to become the team leader of the K9 Unit within the Kurdish Peshmerga’s Engineer Regiment. In 2016, the Ministry of Peshmerga asked the Marshall Legacy Institute (MLI), a U.S.-based nonprofit, to help establish a Mine Detection Dog Partnership Program to address the landmine threat in Iraq.

Peshmerga Engineer Regiment
Karzan Khalid, team leader of the K9 Unit in the Kurdish Peshmerga’s Engineer Regiment, is seen with his mine detection dog Micro-Scout in September 2017.

In September, MLI teamed up with the Kurdistan Regional Government Representative Office in D.C. to present Khalid and his dog Micro-Scout with the Marshall Legacy Institute’s 2017 Explosive Detection Dog Team of the Year Award. The event included a demonstration by retired explosive detection dog Zira-Yankee.

With contributions from private American donors such as General Dynamics, MLI has provided 18 highly trained explosive-sniffing dogs to the Pershmerga K9 Unit, and with support from the U.S. Department of Defense, MLI has trained Kurdish handlers to employ the dogs safely and effectively in the field. (MLI has donated approximately 250 dogs to countries around the world.)

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Zebari, commander of the Peshmerga Engineer Regiment, said MLI’s donated dogs “help save and improve lives every day.” The newly formed K9 Unit uses 12 explosive detection dogs to search vehicles at checkpoints and buildings along the lines of confrontation. Six mine detection dog teams soon will complete certification testing administered by the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency and will begin their lifesaving work in the field.

Peshmerga Engineer Regiment
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the U.S., left, presents Karzan Khalid with the Marshall Legacy Institute’s 2017 Explosive Detection Dog Team of the Year Award.

Zebari said the dog teams will facilitate the safe return of internally displaced persons to areas formerly controlled by the Islamic State, which left thousands of landmines, IEDs and booby traps in its wake. The KRG representative to the U.S., Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, said that the Peshmerga’s fight against the Islamic State has been heroic but that “tragically, we have lost Peshmerga in this fight and many have been wounded.” She noted that 60 to 65 percent of the casualties were a result of IEDs, mines and unexploded devices.

In 2016, the Landmine Monitor reported that the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency registered 2,711 confirmed hazardous areas and 491 suspected hazardous areas over 240 square miles throughout the region. In Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city in northern Iraq, three booby-trapped houses exploded last June, killing 27 people. The victims had recently returned to their houses, which are believed to have been booby-trapped by Islamic State militants before their defeat in nearby Mosul. The bomb disposal teams had not yet cleared the houses.

The Peshmerga K9 Unit already has searched nearly 20,000 cars, 80 houses and many acres of hazardous areas, and their work really has just begun. MLI President Perry Baltimore spoke about the perils Peshmerga fighters encounter as they search for dangerous explosives.

“The threat is real, and for every dog, there’s a highly skilled, well-trained, motivated handler. That’s what Karzan Khalid and his brave dog teams do every day — risk their own lives, limbs and paws to make Iraqi Kurdistan a better and safer place for children to go to school and people to work and farm the fields by getting rid of these mines and IEDs,” he said.

Ross Perot Jr., chairman of Hillwood International Energy, is a supporter of MLI’s mission. “I had the opportunity to visit the K9 Unit at the Ministry of Peshmerga in October and was impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the Peshmerga dog handlers,” he said. “The explosive detection dogs appeared motivated, highly trained and well-bonded to their handlers. I’m pleased to see the fruits of my investment as these courageous dog teams search for dangerous explosives and render areas safe and economically viable.”

Peshmerga Engineer Regiment
The Peshmerga K9 Unit has searched nearly 20,000 cars, 80 houses and many acres of hazardous areas to remove landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have maimed or killed thousands of men, women and children throughout Kurdistan and other areas of Iraq.

At the event, Baltimore pulled out an actual deactivated landmine measuring about three inches in circumference.

“Now, if you’re a brave young man or woman with a probe looking for something like this; you could imagine that it’s pretty tough,” he said. “The people of Iraqi Kurdistan suffered enormously throughout the Islamic State crisis and recovery has been slow, largely in part because of the deadly legacy of landmines. The Peshmerga fought bravely and valiantly in the counter-ISIS battle, and MLI is committed to helping the Iraqi Kurds help themselves in post-ISIS Iraq.”

Two of MLI’s 18 donated dogs are still unsponsored, and MLI is seeking corporate sponsors to cover the cost of training and delivering the two lifesaving dogs to Kurdistan. These dogs enable children to play, people to work and communities to grow without the fear of landmines.

The cost of sponsorship is $25,000, for which a donor may name his/her dog, receive quarterly progress reports, participate in donor recognition events, observe the dog at work in the field and, perhaps most importantly, know that countless lives will be saved and thousands of livelihoods enhanced because of the living gift of a mine detection dog.

Should a company with business interests in the region choose to learn more about this opportunity to save and improve lives in Iraqi Kurdistan by joining MLI’s dog sponsors, including General Dynamics and Hillwood International Energy, additional information can be found at www.marshall-legacy.org.

Bill Outlaw is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously covered foreign affairs for the Washington Times and also worked for the Associated Press.



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