Decorated veteran says clearing explosives during Iraq War was 'baptism of fire'

Watch: Bomb disposal veteran says nothing could have prepared his men for sights of Iraq war.

A decorated British Army bomb disposal veteran has spoken of his "baptism of fire" when he was sent to clear explosives during the Iraq War.

Twenty years on since the start of the conflict, Major (Ret'd) Chris Hunter shared his experience of the war, including the time he and his team were ambushed and had to fight their way out.

Major Hunter told the Sitrep podcast he and his half a dozen men were warned they would be parachuting under fire into Iraq as part of, what he described as 'Operation Certain Death', to clear improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the oil fields.

A sign warns of IEDs in Iraq.
Major Hunter deployed to Iraq in 2004 to tackle the threat of IEDs.

"Then we were going to have to overcome this division of Iraqis, then find the IEDs. So Operation Certain Death, for some reason, it was cancelled at the very last minute and a normal ground offensive went in, so I didn't go in for another year."

Despite having spent four years attached to the Special Forces, Major Hunter said: "I don't think anything really prepared us for what we saw and what we experienced."

Four days into the tour, in 2004, he and his men were ambushed on the way back from dealing with some IEDs.

He described the horror: "My number two was shot, I was shot and we had to fight our way out. And it was the first time we'd actually been involved in close combat and had to engage with the enemy.

"So, yeah, it was a real baptism of fire, I think. It was a relentless tour."

Maj Hunter now lives in Iraq and works for a charity clearing improvised bombs left by so-called Islamic State which emerged from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004.

He said: "We did a survey back in 2018 and we looked at all the sites that Daesh (another name for so-called Islamic State) had occupied in northern Iraq, and there was an estimated half a million improvised explosive devices."

The IEDs were "world-class" and Major Hunter says when they saw them in urban areas like Mosul, "you'd see every single person would have a suicide vest on".

When they'd clear the buildings of rubble after the war, Major Hunter's team would find "bodies and skeletons".

A British soldier in Iraq.
Major Hunter said the Iraqi people eventually welcomed the presence of his men.

Describing the range of explosives his team came across, the retired Army Major said: "You would see everything from drones through to car bombs through to truck bombs through to mines, even speed bumps and that sort of stuff in the urban environment.

"And in addition to that, there were entire swathes of rural areas – every village, every farm was covered in what we call improvised mines".

In the video above, the Army veteran showed Forces News an example of a plastic explosive device similar to those he found in Iraq on each of the bodies and skeletons they discovered.

He explained: "Effectively, it's a strip of plastic explosive, in the back of it, high-explosive detonating cord.

"It's got a power source and multiple different firing switches. And then on the front of it, lots and lots of nuts and bolts and washers and metal fragmentation so that if they were overpowered, you know, they'd make a final stand, they'd press the plunger switch, and the high explosive would detonate, killing them and killing anybody that's attacking them."

Major Hunter also showed Forces News an example of an anti-vehicle mine, which, he explained, contains "about the same amount of explosives, to put it into context, as the Manchester Arena bomb, for example".

One wrong move when dealing with one of the devices could have caused his men to be "instantly vapourised", he said.

He added: "It's about, sort of, five or six kilos of high explosive in there. And those guys that have served in Afghanistan will recognise the colour of the explosive there, ammonium nitrate and aluminium, which is a big favourite used by the Taliban as well in Afghanistan."

Despite initially being seen as an occupying force, Maj Hunter said the Iraqi people eventually welcomed his men.

He said: "We're not just work colleagues, we're mates. We get on really, really well. And, I think, the Iraqi people welcome us and we shared that plight as well – the barbaric atrocities they suffered under ISIS, the fact that we helped them to get through that and to ultimately overcome ISIS as well."

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