Allied cluster bombs blamed for 1,000 deaths in Iraq

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 12 December 2003 01:00
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More than 1,000 civilians were killed or wounded by cluster bombs used by American and British forces in the invasion of Iraq, and Iraqis are still being killed and maimed by the munitions months after they were dropped.

In March and April, cluster bombs used in populated areas were responsible for more civilian casualties than any other weapon, said a report published today. On one day, 31 March, 33 civilians were killed and 109 injured by the bomblets dropped on of Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

The report, by Human Rights Watch (HRW), says American and British forces used nearly 13,000 cluster bombs, often in populated areas. The weapons, packed with small bomblets, some with time delays, have a failure rate of 5 per cent and the unexploded bomblets can lie in the ground for months until set off by a passer-by or a vehicle. Experience from other conflicts, including the US-led war in Afghanistan, has shown the unexploded, yellow bombs attract curious children.

Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director, said: "Coalition forces tried to avoid killing Iraqis who weren't in combat. But the deaths of hundreds of civilians could have been prevented. Every death of a civilian in wartime is a terrible tragedy but focusing on the exact number of deaths misses the point. The point is that the US military should not have been using these methods of warfare.

"The way cluster bombs were used in Iraq represents a big step backwards for the US military. US ground forces need to learn the lesson the air force seems to have adopted: cluster munitions cannot be used in populated areas without huge loss of civilian life."

At least nine nations have used cluster bombs, which do not discriminate between military and civilian targets. In April, the Ministry of Defence said that it had dropped 50 cluster munitions in Iraq, leaving 800 unexploded bomblets. Independent figures suggest that British forces used 70 air-launched cluster bombs and 2,100 ground-launched.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, had defended their use, saying they were "perfectly legal" and "entirely legitimate".

But critics say the weapons were routinely used during the invasion in populated areas, rather than in any defensive capacity or against enemy soldiers. The HRW report says its researchers visited 10 Iraqi cities between 29 April and 1 June, and found neighbourhoods littered with unexploded bomblets. It estimates that the 13,000 cluster bombs dropped contained two million bomblets.

In a hospital in Hillah, a doctor told the HRW researchers that 90 per cent of the casualties he had treated during the war were injured by cluster munitions. Last night, Bonnie Docherty, a HRW spokeswoman in Washington, said that civilians were still being killed by unexploded or "dud" cluster munitions dropped during the war. "The dud problem is big, particularly given that the munitions were used in populated areas," she said.

There have been various moves to regulate the use of cluster munitions. Glenda Jackson MP, a former Labour minister, told The Independent that she had sought information from the MoD on whether it knew where unexploded cluster munitions were, and what was being done to prevent them injuring civilians. "The response was very general," she said.

A meeting of UN bodies and NGOs in November issued a statement that read: "Routinely, an estimated 5 per cent to 30 per cent of cluster munitions fail to explode ... either penetrating the ground or remaining on the surface. Those under ground can impede the safe cultivation of land ... This is the case in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam where they still pose a terrible threat, 30 years after the end of conflicts."

During the war in Afghanistan in 2001, US forces had to broadcast messages to Afghan civilians who were mistaking the bright yellow munitions for humanitarian aid packages, which were the same size and colour.

**An American soldier was killed and 14 wounded when a suicide car bomb exploded outside a military base near Ramadi, west of Baghdad. In central Baghdad, the main American headquarters was also attacked with three or four blasts rocking the compound around midnight.

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