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Ticking Time Bombs in Iraq:
Cluster Bombs and Their Continuing Dangers


Tuesday, Apr. 29, 2003

Human rights groups criticize cluster munitions for the threat they pose to civilians; the Pentagon defends them for their effectiveness. With the Iraq War, the debate over cluster bomb use has a new test case.

The U.S. military used cluster munitions in 1991, during the Persian Gulf War; in 1999, during the Kosovo conflict; and in 2001 and 2002 in Afghanistan. The resulting civilian casualties led human rights groups to urge the Pentagon not to deploy the weapon in or near populated areas during the war in Iraq.

Recent statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggest that the Pentagon has taken heed of this advice. At a press conference in Washington last Friday, General Richard B. Myers said that U.S. and British forces had dropped "nearly 1,500 cluster bombs of varying types" during the Iraq War, but that only twenty-six of these bombs had hit targets within 1,500 feet of civilian neighborhoods.

The result, he noted with satisfaction, was "only one recorded case of collateral damage" caused by cluster munitions. (This means, in non-military-speak, that only one civilian was killed or injured.)

It would be heartening to think that the Pentagon is finally getting the message. Although twenty-six cluster bombs aimed at or near civilian areas are twenty-six too many, they obviously represent a tiny proportion of the total ordnance used in Iraq.

Unfortunately, Myers' figures are highly disingenuous. They only cover air-dropped cluster munitions, not the surface-launched type that are believed to have caused many more civilian casualties in Iraq. Not only that, but unexploded cluster bomblets, lying in wait for future victims, are likely to increase the toll of civilian deaths and injuries.

What Cluster Bombs Are

Cluster bombs are large weapons that contain dozens and often hundreds of smaller submunitions. They come in over 200 models and can be delivered from the air or the ground, releasing "bomblets" or "grenades" respectively.

Because of the wide dispersal pattern of their bomblets, cluster munitions can destroy broad, relatively "soft" targets, such as airfields and surface-to-air missile sites. They are also effective against targets that move or do not have a precise location, such as enemy troops or vehicles.

The Dangers of Cluster Bomb Use

It is precisely the qualities that make cluster bombs militarily desirable that make them so dangerous to civilians. From the humanitarian perspective, the weapons have two main problems: they are difficult to target accurately, and they leave large numbers of unexploded bomblets, or duds.

Cluster bombs cannot be precisely targeted. Once a cluster casing opens, it releases hundreds of unguided bomblets that disperse over a wide area. The wide dispersal pattern of these submunitions makes it very difficult to avoid civilians if they are in the area in which the cluster bombs are dropped.

Cluster bombs also produce problematic aftereffects because many of the bomblets do not explode on impact as intended. While all weapons have a failure rate, cluster bombs are more dangerous because they release such large numbers of bomblets. As a result, every cluster bomb leaves some unexploded ordnance.

This high dud rate puts civilians at great risk. Unexploded bomblets become like landmines: they lie in wait, killing civilians who visit the battlefield days or weeks after an attack is over. Some people consider cluster bomblet duds even worse than landmines because of their extreme volatility.

Sadly, children are particularly vulnerable to unexploded bomblets because of their curiosity and failure to understand danger. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported the case of Nabil Khalil, age 14, hospitalized in Kirkuk after playing with a cluster bomblet that he found in an abandoned Iraqi army camp. He lost one hand, suffered severe face injuries and can barely open his eyes.

Deploying Cluster Bombs in Iraqi Cities

It is because of these dangers that human rights groups contend that cluster bombs should never be deployed in civilian areas. While the Pentagon has offered figures indicating low use of air-dropped cluster bombs in Iraqi cities, it has not provided similar information regarding ground-based cluster munitions.

According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Army did, in fact, use ground-based cluster munitions in populated areas of Baghdad, as well as other Iraqi cities. Its researchers believe that these weapons caused many more civilian casualties than did air-based cluster bombs.

Media reports have confirmed these claims. Several journalists have provided eyewitness accounts of cluster munitions use against populated areas in the southern part of Baghdad. Newsday reported on April 15 that two children were killed, and one seriously injured, when a cluster munition they were playing with exploded.

"Tough Choices"

At Friday's press conference, discussing cluster bomb use, General Myers talked about the "tough choices" that the military faces in making targeting decisions. But some choices should not just be tough; they should be excluded.

The record shows that the military should not use cluster bombs of any type in populated areas. Moreover, given the weapon's terrible impact on civilians, the Pentagon should reconsider whether the cluster bomb is necessary to its arsenal.

Joanne Mariner is a columnist for FindLaw and attorney for Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch has published numerous reports and briefing papers on the use of cluster munitions, which Mariner relied upon in writing this article.

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