Alongside the well-publicised work of the UN's weapons inspectors in Iraq, another UN mission in the region is quietly performing a lonely and dangerous task. Established in 1991, the 1200-strong UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission, known as UNIKOM, has managed to keep the peace on an international border still bristling with Gulf War mines. Frank Gardner went to with this multinational force which draws its members flora more than 30 countries.
Against the clear blue sky of northern Arabia a puff of dark smoke appeared, rose briefly, then rolled over the dunes towards us. A moment later there was a loud bang and a shockwave that rocked the air. Clad in the obligatory flak jacket and blue helmet, I was watching a controlled explosion of mines by military engineers from Argentina.
More than seven years after the Gulf War, unexploded Iraqi mines and Allied bombs remain a serious hazard in the 13-kilometre wide demilitarised zone (DMZ) which now separates Kuwait from Iraq.
"Immediately after the war the Kuwaitis cleared all the unexploded ordnance from their side of the international border," says Major Dermot Fulton of the British Army. "However the Iraqis have made no effort to clear their side and we still have two large uncleared minefields about 15 kilometres to the north of the Iraq-Saudi Arabian border."
Clearing mines is only a part of the daily work for this 1200-strong force that draws its members from more countries than any other UN mission in the world. Under UN Security Council Resolution No.687 of 1991, UNIKOM's tasks include monitoring the DMZ, deterring any violations along the 240-km long border, and observing any hostile action by one state against another.
In the years immediately following the Gulf War, this was a dangerous and ill-defined border. Western expatriates working in Kuwait frequently strayed too close to Iraq and were promptly taken off to Iraqi jails then later released. Armed raiding parties from Iraq ventured into Kuwaiti territory to recover weapons and material leftover from the war.
The most serious violation took place in January 1993 when a large group of Iraqis drove across the border to the former Iraqi naval base near the port of Umm Qasr. There they forced their way into the ammunition bunkers and retrieved missiles and other weapons which were due to be destroyed by the UN. Since the UN observers were powerless to prevent this, UNIKOM has since been strengthened by a mechanised battalion of...