Twenty-five percent of the world's unexploded land mines are buried in Iraq, making it one of the most contaminated countries, the environment ministry said Tuesday.
More than 20 million mines are scattered in the war-plagued nation, deputy environment minister Kamal Hussein Latif said.
"That has become a heavy legacy on the country that hobbles its economy and health," Latif told reporters in Baghdad.
Many of the land mines date to 1960s, when Iraq launched military operations to quell the Kurdish rebellion in the north. But they also are a legacy of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein's regime planted them in the desert near the border, along with the first Gulf War in 1991 and the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"They were planted randomly and no maps were left from the previous regime," Latif said.
The mines have affected development _ particularly in the oil sector because so many mines were laid in the northern Kurdish region, around major oil infrastructure.
Iraq will likely clear about 70 percent of the mines by 2018, but the process is slow because of staff shortages and other problems, Latif said. The Ministry of Defense is in charge of clearance, with help from about 20 private companies and a handful of non-governmental organizations.
According to the U.N. figures, the contaminated sites cover an estimated 1,730 square kilometers (668 sq. miles) and affect around 1.6 million people. Land mines and unexploded ordinance killed or injured an average of two Iraqis every week in 2009, the U.N. says. Eighty percent of them were young men, aged 15 to 29 years.
In a 2010 report, the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Land mines found the region with the greatest number of casualties in 2009 was Asia-Pacific (2,153 casualties); Americas (682); Africa (534); Middle-East-North Africa (324); Europe (263), for a total of 3,956 casualties.
Violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq from just a few years ago, when widespread sectarian killings brought the country to the brink of civil war. But deadly shootings and bombings still occur every day.
On Tuesday, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt at a car dealership near the Syrian border in northwest Iraq. The blast killed three people and wounded seven, according to a policeman and a medic at Mosul general hospital, where the survivors were taken in critical condition.
Late Monday night, gunmen killed six people sleeping in their home in an al-Qaida stronghold south of Baghdad. An Interior Ministry official said the dead included a local policeman and a member of the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq _ the Sunni militia that battled al-Qaida at the peak of the war.
Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad, Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.