Global Policy Forum

Cluster Bombs Kill in Iraq, Even After Shooting Ends


By Paul Wiseman

December 16, 2003

The little canisters dropped onto the city, white ribbons trailing behind. They clattered into streets, landed in lemon trees, rattled around on roofs, settled onto lawns. When Jassim al-Qaisi saw the canisters the size of D batteries falling on his neighborhood just before 7 a.m. April 7, he laughed and asked himself: "Now what are the Americans throwing on our heads?" The strange objects were fired by U.S. artillery outside Baghdad as U.S. forces approached the Iraqi capital. In the span of a few minutes, they would kill four civilians in the al-Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad and send al-Qaisi's teenage son to the hospital with metal fragments in his foot. The deadly objects were cluster bomblets, small explosives packed by the dozens or hundreds into bombs, rockets or artillery shells known as cluster weapons. When these weapons were fired on Baghdad on April 7, many of the bomblets failed to explode on impact. They were picked up or stumbled on by their victims.

The four who died in the al-Dora neighborhood that day lived a few blocks from al-Qaisi's house. Rashid Majid, 58, who was nearsighted, stepped on an unexploded bomblet around the corner from his home. The explosion ripped his legs off. As he lay bleeding in the street, another bomblet exploded a few yards away, instantly killing three young men, including two of Majid's sons - Arkan, 33, and Ghasan, 28. "My sons! My sons!" Majid called out. He died a few hours later. The deaths occurred because the world's most modern military, one determined to minimize civilian casualties, went to war with stockpiles of weapons known to endanger civilians and its own soldiers. The weapons claimed victims in the initial explosions and continued to kill afterward, as Iraqis and U.S. forces accidentally detonated bomblets lying around like small land mines.

A four-month examination by USA TODAY of how cluster bombs were used in the Iraq war found dozens of deaths that were unintended but predictable. Although U.S. forces sought to limit what they call "collateral damage" in the Iraq campaign, they defied international criticism and used nearly 10,800 cluster weapons; their British allies used almost 2,200. The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery. They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation. One anti-war group calculates that cluster weapons killed as many as 372 Iraqi civilians. The numbers are impossible to verify: Iraqi hospital records are incomplete, and many Iraqi families buried their dead without reporting their deaths.

In the most comprehensive report on the use of cluster weapons in Iraq, USA TODAY visited Iraqi neighborhoods and interviewed dozens of Iraqi families, U.S. troops, teams clearing unexploded ordnance in Iraq, military analysts and humanitarian groups. The findings:

. The Pentagon presented a misleading picture during the war of the extent to which cluster weapons were being used and of the civilian casualties they were causing. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on April 25, six days before President Bush declared major combat operations over, that the United States had used 1,500 cluster weapons and caused one civilian casualty. It turns out he was referring only to cluster weapons dropped from the air, not those fired by U.S. ground forces.

In fact, the United States used 10,782 cluster weapons, according to the declassified executive summary of a report compiled by U.S. Central Command, which oversaw military operations in Iraq. Centcom sent the figures to the Joint Chiefs in response to queries from USA TODAY and others, but details of the report remain secret.

U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas. These strikes, from late March to early April, killed dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Forty civilians were killed in one neighborhood in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, say residents and Saad Khazal al-Faluji, a surgeon at Hillah General Hospital who tracked casualties.

The attacks also left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets, known as duds, that continued to kill and injure Iraqi civilians weeks after the fighting stopped. U.S. officials say they sought to limit civilian casualties by trying to avoid using cluster munitions. But often alternative weapons were not available or would not have been as effective during the invasion.

. Unexploded U.S. cluster bomblets remain a threat to U.S. forces in Iraq. They have killed or injured at least eight U.S. troops.

. The U.S. Air Force, criticized for using cluster bombs that killed civilians during the wars in Vietnam, Kosovo and Afghanistan, has improved its cluster bombs. But U.S. ground forces relied on cluster munitions known to cause a high number of civilian casualties.

The Air Force, responding to the criticism, began working on safer cluster bombs in the mid-1990s and started using them in Afghanistan. But the Army started a program to install self-destruct fuses in existing cluster bomblets only after former Defense Secretary William Cohen called in January 2001 for dud rates of no more than 1% after 2005. The safer bomblets won't be available for at least two years. During the war in Iraq, U.S. ground forces dipped into stockpiles of more than 740 million cluster bomblets, all with a history of high dud rates. Senior Army officials in Washington would not answer questions about the Army's use of cluster weapons in Iraq. Maj. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said such weapons are effective "against enemy troop formations and light-skinned vehicles" and are used only after "a deliberate decision-making process."

Why cluster bombs are deadly

Cluster bombs have been controversial since they killed thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian civilians during and after the Vietnam War. They have since been used by armies around the world, including Russian forces in Chechnya and Sudanese government troops fighting rebels in a long-running civil war. But their use in urban areas of Iraq has given new momentum to a movement to restrict the use of cluster bombs. Last month, dozens of activist groups hoping to duplicate the success of the campaign to ban land mines formed a coalition aimed at getting a worldwide moratorium on cluster weapons. After seeing the toll the weapons took on Iraqi civilians and their own forces, even some U.S. soldiers have misgivings about using cluster weapons, at least in urban areas.

As the war in Iraq approached, humanitarian groups warned the Pentagon against using cluster weapons, especially in urban areas. New York-based Human Rights Watch predicted on March 18, a day before the war began with an airstrike in Baghdad: "The use of cluster munitions in Iraq will result in grave dangers to civilians and friendly combatants." Cluster weapons are especially dangerous to civilians because they spray wide areas with hundreds of bomblets. Most are unguided "dumb" weapons, so they can miss their target, and many of the bomblets don't explode immediately.

The U.S. military was aware of the threat cluster munitions posed and was determined to minimize them. Col. Lyle Cayce, an Army judge advocate general (JAG), led a team of 14 lawyers providing advice on the battlefield to the 3rd Infantry Division on the use of cluster munitions, as well as other weapons, during its 21-day, 450-mile drive north from Kuwait to Baghdad. The goal was to ensure that U.S. forces complied with international humanitarian law, enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. "No other army in the world does that," Cayce says. "We value the rule of law." The Geneva Conventions hold that when choosing which targets to hit and which weapons to use, armies must make sure they do not "cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering" and ensure that the harm to civilians does not outweigh the military advantages.

U.S. forces relied on sophisticated radar to pinpoint the sources of Iraqi fire, then cross-checked them against a computerized list of about 10,000 sensitive sites, such as mosques and schools. Cayce and the other lawyers looked at potential targets and advised U.S. commanders whether the military benefits of using specific weapons against those targets justified the risks to civilians. Cayce gave advice 512 times during the war, usually in cases involving cluster munitions. Most involved sites outside populated areas. Cayce estimates he dealt with only 25 to 30 "controversial missions." For example: He approved a strike against an Iraqi artillery battery in a soccer field next to a mosque because it was firing on the 3rd Infantry Division's artillery headquarters.

The choices could be agonizing. He says he asked himself, "How many Americans do I have to let get killed before I take out that (Iraqi) weapons system?" Ten to 15 times, Cayce advised commanders against firing on a target; they never overruled him. Five times, in fact, they decided against using cluster munitions even after he gave them the go-ahead because they believed the risk to civilians was too great. "We didn't just shoot there willy-nilly," he says. "It was the enemy who was putting his civilians at risk. ... They put their artillery right in town. Now who's at fault there?"

Rather than call upon their artillery to hit a target with cluster munitions, U.S. ground forces preferred either to use other weapons, such as M-16 rifles or tank rounds, or to summon the Air Force to hit Iraqi targets from the sky with precision bombs. "Cluster munitions were the last choice, not the first," Cayce says. But aircraft frequently were unavailable. Sometimes the weather was bad or sandstorms were swirling. Sometimes Air Force pilots insisted on seeing targets instead of relying on radar readouts. The cluster munitions, especially M26 rockets fired by a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), had greater range than other weapons and were more reliable in bad weather.

Commanders also thought an MLRS was better at returning fire and killing the enemy. "MLRS is ideal for counterfire," says Col. Ted Janosko, artillery commander for the Army's V Corps. In fighting on March 31 around Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. forces came under heavy artillery fire from the Iraqis. "We used (MLRS) rockets to fire back," Janosko says. "As soon as we started using rockets, guess what? We never heard from that unit again. I'm not going to say we killed them all ... but believe me, they did not fire again from that position."

The 3rd Infantry Division also used MLRS frequently. The rockets can go more than 20 miles, and they spray a wider area than other weapons. The 3rd Infantry fired 794 MLRS rockets during the Iraq war, according to an assessment by two high-ranking division artillery officers in the U.S. Army journal Field Artillery, published at Fort Sill, Okla. As they raced north from Kuwait toward Baghdad in late March and early April, U.S. forces fired rockets and artillery shells loaded with bomblets into Iraqi troop and artillery positions in Hillah, in Baghdad and in other cities. U.S. aircraft sometimes dropped cluster bombs as well. Just before U.S. forces' "thunder run" into Baghdad on April 7, the 3rd Infantry Division fired 24 MLRS cluster rockets into Iraqi positions at an important intersection in the capital. The damage assessment, recounted in the Field Artillery article: "There's nothing left but burning trucks and body parts."

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