Global Policy Forum

Irregular Weapons Used Against Iraq


By Simon Helweg-Larsen

April 7, 2003

This document presents collected information on irregular weapons used by the United States and the United Kingdom since the official beginning of their war against Iraq. Regular air and ground weapons such as missiles, light bombs and bullets often cause more civilian casualties than irregular weapons (cluster weapons, depleted uranium, napalm, etc.). However, the terrorizing, indiscriminate, experimental, and often long-lasting nature of these weapons make for horrible and illegal battle tactics. In no way do I suggest that the invasion of Iraq would be legally, morally, or otherwise justified given the absence of these weapons. However, their usage adds an element of lasting terror and suffering which significantly worsens this already horrific and illegal war.

At this stage of the war, and probably indefinitely, a complete list of instances in which these weapons were used would be impossible to compile. The amount of information seeping through Iraqi battlefields and cities is likely to be incredibly small compared to the reality on the ground. Still, a collection of examples that have surfaced in the English-language media will help to document the use of these atrocious weapons.


Cluster bombs, dropped from the air, and cluster munitions, fired from the ground, are designated as such because they fragment into many smaller bombs. When a cluster weapon is dropped or fired, it opens in the air and disperses hundreds of smaller explosives (submunitions, or bomblets) which scatter over an area of up to hundreds of thousands of feet. Most of these submunitions explode upon impact, but between 5% and 30% fail to ignite. These "duds" retain their deadly features, and typically will explode immediately when touched. Herein lies the main threat to civilians, since dud bombs act as landmines across vast areas for many years.

During the first Gulf War, the US and its allies dropped cluster bombs containing around 20 million bomblets. In addition, cluster munitions spread more than 30 million bomblets. In Kuwait, around 200 cluster duds are still being found and destroyed each month. In Afghanistan, the United States dropped 1,228 CBU-87 cluster bombs containing 248,056 bomblets. Assuming a 7% failure rate, this would leave roughly 17,363 unexploded bomblets scattered across Afghanistan. The US and UK are quick to point out that cluster bombs and cluster munitions are not specifically banned under the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. Still, the indiscriminate nature of scattered explosives and the lingering danger of unexploded bombs make these weapons nearly identical to landmines. A strong case can also be made that cluster bombs and munitions are illegal under the Geneva Convention, which demands the protection of civilians even when intermingled with military personnel.

Cluster Bombs used against Iraq

The US and the UK both officially acknowledged on April 3 that their air forces have been dropping cluster bombs on Iraq. Judging by the high numbers of cluster bombs dropped by the US on Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq in 1991, the bombs have probably been used much more often than has been reported.

• On April 1, the residential al-Hilla outskirts of Babylon were hit with an undetermined number of BLU-97 A/B cluster bombs. Each bomb releases 202 bomblets which scatter over an area the size of two football fields, with a dud rate of 5%-7%. Immediate reports stated that at least 33 civilians died and around 300 were injured in the attack. Amnesty International condemned the attack, saying that "the use of cluster bombs in an attack on a civilian area of al-Hilla constitutes an indiscriminate attack and a grave violation of international humanitarian law." Independent reporter Robert Fisk wrote from al-Hilla, saying that many dud bombs landed, and remain, inside civilian homes.

• The British Ministry of Defence said on April 3 that RAF Harrier jets had dropped RBL755 cluster bombs on unspecified locations in Iraq. These bombs scatter 147 bomblets, and have a 10% rate of failure.

• Also on April 3, the United States reported that it had used B-52 bombers to drop six CBU-105 cluster bombs on Iraqi tanks defending Baghdad. On the same day, Iraq's Information Minister reported that a cluster bomb attack on Baghdad had killed 14 people and wounded 66.

Cluster Munitions used against Iraq

Cluster munitions are similar to cluster bombs, but are fired from the ground and contained in artillery projectiles or rockets. When artillery or rockets fire cluster munitions, the result is the same as in cluster bombs: multiple bomblets scatter, many of which fail to explode. Human Rights Watch reported that more than 4,000 civilians were killed or injured by cluster munitions in Iraq after the end of the first Gulf War. The UK has admitted to firing cluster munitions around Basra. The US has yet to report that it is using cluster munitions, but numerous reports and videos from journalists embedded with US units show these munitions in use.

• Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), which only use cluster munitions, have been used by artillery units of the US 3rd Infantry Division. The standard warhead for the MLRS contains 644 M77 individual submunitions, also known as dual-purpose grenades, which have a failure rate of 16%. The standard volley of 12 MLRS rockets would leave more than 1,200 unexploded grenades over an area of 120,000-240,000 meters.

• On March 28, while supporting the 101st Airborne Division, US MLRS fired 18 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) against suspected air defense sites. An ATACMS releases either 300 or 950 submunitions and has a 2% rate of failure.

• An embedded journalist reported "hundreds of grenades" being fired by the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion using 155mm artillery. Human Rights Watch believes these were M483A1 and M864 projectiles, which release 88 and 72 dual-purpose grenades respectively and have a 14% rate of failure.

• Two US Marines died after stepping on unexploded cluster munitions in southern Iraq on March 28 and March 29.

• The British Ministry of Defence says that it has fired cluster shells on Basra. L20 cluster shells have been shot from long-range (30km) howitzers at targets described as "in the open." These Israeli-made shells contain 49 bomblets with a failure rate of 5%.


Napalm is an incendiary chemical mix first tested during the Second World War, but used mainly during the Vietnam War. The mix, stored in bombs and dropped from the air, was initially used to clear jungle landing pads, but has also been used against civilian populations. The US claims to have stopped using napalm in the early 1970s and officially destroyed its last batch of stockpiled napalm on April 4, 2001.

• On March 22, reporters from CNN and the Sydney Morning Herald / Melbourne Age embedded with the 1st Battalion 7th Marines at Safwan Hill near Basra reported air strikes dropping napalm to beat Iraqi resistance. Martin Savidge of CNN said,

It is now estimated the hill was hit so badly by missiles, artillery and by the Air Force, that they shaved a couple of feet off it. And anything that was up there that was left after all the explosions was then hit with napalm. And that pretty much put an end to any Iraqi operations up on that hill. Lindsay Murdoch wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, "[Marine artillery] were supported by US Navy aircraft which dropped 40,000 pounds of explosives and napalm." When the Age's foreign editor asked Murdoch to confirm the napalm use, the account was repeated to her by a marine officer.

The US Navy denied the reports, submitting this letter to the Herald, Your story ('Dead bodies everywhere', by Lindsay Murdoch, March 22, 2003) claiming US forces are using napalm in Iraq, is patently false. The US took napalm out of service in the early 1970s. We completed destruction of our last batch of napalm on April 4, 2001, and no longer maintain any stocks of napalm. - Jeff A. Davis, Lieutenant Commander, US Navy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense.


The GBU-28 Bunker Buster is a 5,000 pound bomb designed to penetrate up to 6 meters of concrete or 30 meters of earth before exploding. While former Nobel Peace Prize nominee Helen Caldicott warns that the casing of bunker busters are made of uranium 238 (depleted uranium, or DU), it is unclear whether the GBU-28 used on Iraq contains DU.

• Two bunker busters were dropped in Baghdad on March 28. The bombs hit a communications tower and dug "huge craters" around the main telephone exchange center. Little information has surfaced from the attack, and there has been no indication as to why a penetrating bomb was used on an above ground target.


Used in anti-tank shells since the first Gulf War, depleted uranium (DU) is uranium 238, the isotope remaining after uranium 235 has been enriched for use in nuclear weapons or reactors. When DU-tipped shells are fired at high speeds from tanks or planes, the radioactive material burns through tank armor, igniting the vehicle. After exploding, 70% of the shell is vaporized into tiny particles and can be carried by the wind for many miles. Although DU is only half as radioactive as uranium 235, the tiny particles can become trapped inside the human body for long periods of time, creating serious health problems.

During the first Gulf War, US tanks fired 14,000 DU shells, and anti-tank aircraft fired another 940,000 rounds, leaving a total of 564,000 pounds of DU either vaporized or unexploded on the desert floor. Iraqis have since experienced extremely abnormal rates of cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages in the areas where DU was used, particularly around Basra. The "Gulf War Syndrome" experienced by US veterans has also been widely blamed on depleted uranium.

The US and UK are unapologetic about DU, however, insisting that it poses no health risks and refusing to reduce DU usage in the current war on Iraq. DU will be used in most tank battles, and the amount and location of DU shells are impossible to judge at this point. DU shells are also being used against exposed troops as well as tanks, a tactic which may be used increasingly as tanks begin to wage urban warfare in Baghdad and Basra.

• On March 28, a tank unit fired two 120mm DU rounds down the main road of urban Kifl, creating a vacuum effect that "literally sucked guerrillas out from their hideaways into the street, where they were shot down by small arms fire or run over by the tanks."

More Articles on the War Against Iraq
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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.