It is probably one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Colonel Abu Mohammed is the policeman in charge of defusing unexploded bombs in Baghdad, where the sound of explosions is so common that, unless the blast is very close, people no longer come to their doors to check what has blown up.
“I used to have 11 experts in defusing bombs here but now I am almost the only one because it is so dangerous,” says the colonel, a surprisingly cheerful bald man in his early fifties.
“Some of the others are dead or injured or were threatened into resigning.”
One officer had just had his ground-floor apartment demolished by an explosion. Just as we were starting to interview Col Mohammed (his name has been changed to protect his identity), an elderly man in white robes entered the room. He said in an agitated voice that somebody had just threatened to kill his son, another police officer, so he would no longer be coming to work.
The colonel explained that he handled all sorts of bombs, particularly roadside bombs and unexploded suicide bombs.
Some of the devices are bizarre. A few months ago a suicide bomber had tried to ram a vehicle carrying two torpedoes, a sea-mine and assorted other explosives through the gates of the main police headquarters in Amariyah. He had hit a gatepost and the bomb never went off.
The colonel defused it.
“Under the old regime we only did a hundredth of the work we do today,” he said. “But in May of last year, after the fall of Saddam, I had to defuse a bomb in a case left near the Oil Ministry. It consisted of two 155mm shells, a battery and a remote control to detonate it.”
The Oil Ministry bomb was the first of many.
Often the same policeman has to defuse three or four bombs, often with anti-handling devices, in different parts of Baghdad in the space of a few hours. Most bombs are similar in pattern, although the sophistication of the equipment differs.
As the colonel explained how to build and dismantle a bomb, his desk was soon covered in different types of batteries, clocks and remote controls. He twirled the lock on a safe and took out silver-coloured blasting caps. Two large metal tubs, which I had seen in a corner of his office and had thought contained paint, turned out to be filled with Russian-made plastic explosives.
Many of the bombs are very large. Last year a suicide bomber, reportedly a Yemeni, was shot when he tried to ram a vehicle into al-Jadidah police station in Baghdad. Col Mohammed, who defused the bomb, found that it consisted of three artillery shells and 1.5 tons of explosives.
It is easy to understand why so many of the surviving officers in the bomb squad have left the police force or transferred to other departments. It is not a well-paid job. The colonel says he makes about $370 (lbs203) a month. Until recently his men had no body armour to protect them from the blast. Col Mohammed said: “We asked the Americans for robots so we don’t have to risk our lives but we haven’t received any.”
At the entrance to the police station a police officer called Saleh Mehdi, 25, appeared and shook hands with his left hand. He explained that his right arm was blown off by a bomb on 25 December last year.
He said: “First we got a call saying there was a roadside bomb in Palestine Street. I went there and defused it. Then there was another found three kilometres away and a third behind the Turkish embassy. “Then we had to go back to Palestine Street because two more bombs had been discovered there.”
Mr Mehdi was standing a yard away from one of the bombs when it blew up. Probably somebody was watching as he got near and pressed a button on a remote control, which detonated it. His right arm was torn off and his body peppered with shrapnel. He said: “I had a mechanical arm fitted but it did not work. I was sent to Oman to get an electronic arm but it has not arrived.” He received no compensation.
The roadside bomb and the suicide bomb are the chosen instruments of those trying to end the occupation. It is a measure of the failure of the American military and civilian authorities in Iraq that the Iraqi police who deal with many of the bombs in Baghdad are so ill-equipped.
As we left Col Mohammed’s office, he saw another officer who had just transferred out of the bomb squad. “Well at least shake hands with me to say goodbye,” said the colonel.
“No, I won’t even shake hands,” replied the officer. “You might persuade me to join your squad again.”