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[casi] Unexploded cluster bombs blanket Iraqi cities

Unexploded cluster bombs blanket Iraqi cities

By Jeremy Johnson
17 June 2003

New evidence emerged this month of the widespread use by US and British
forces of deadly cluster bombs in densely populated areas of Iraq. On June
1, the London-based Observer newspaper published a map produced by the US/UK
military-run Humanitarian Operations Center (HOC), based in Kuwait, showing
the location of unexploded bombs and land mines throughout the devastated
country. [The map can be accessed at

While most of the land mines were laid by Saddam Hussein’s military going as
far back as the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, cluster bombs were used
exclusively by the US and British forces in their recent invasion, as well
as in the 1991 Gulf War.

Using green diamonds to designate cluster bombs, the map shows the heaviest
concentrations in metropolitan Baghdad, which was taken by the Americans,
and in Basra, taken by the British, as well as along the main road
connecting the two. A secondary concentration shows up in and around the
northern city of Kirkuk.

The map exposes as a lie the claim made by UK defense minister Geoff Hoon
before Parliament at the height of the fighting that the British government
had ruled out the use of cluster bombs in Basra because of likely civilian

The HOC issued the map after humanitarian aid groups publicly demanded
information on where cluster bombs had been dropped, to help focus their
efforts to alert both civilians and their own workers to the dangers of
accidental detonation, as well as to remove unexploded shells.

In addition to the dangers posed to the Iraqi people by lawlessness and the
spread of disease due to the destruction of the sanitation infrastructure,
the huge residue of live ammunition and land mines presents the most
immediate threat to civilians trying to piece their lives back together.

In a statement released June 7, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action states:
“Anti-personnel mines, remains from ‘cluster bombs’ and other non-exploded
ordnance and ammunition kill and mutilate daily dozens of civilian Iraqis.”
Another non-governmental organization, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG),
reports that 77 percent of all serious injuries to children results from
youngsters playing or tampering with unexploded mines and bombs.

In one of the worst single incidents, on May 13 in Missan Province north of
Basra, nine children were killed when an Iraqi rocket that some of them were
trying to dismantle blew up.

With the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government, fleeing soldiers abandoned
large quantities of grenades and other shells in readily accessible
locations. One report describes schoolchildren playing football among the
stockpiles of ammunition, unaware of the danger. Another describes young
boys taking out the propellants and setting them on fire to create a big
flash—a game that often has deadly consequences.

In addition to the danger from children playing with left-over bombs,
desperate men and older boys try to defuse the ordnance in order to extract
bits of copper and other metals they can sell for scrap.

US military commanders not only disregarded the need to protect hospitals,
power plants and other basic infrastructure—with the exception of oil
facilities—they also failed to secure abandoned munitions, thus contributing
to the general chaos. A number of unexploded munitions have found their way
into some 800 refuse sites in Baghdad, for example, interfering with
attempts to restore garbage collection.

The unexploded cluster bombs are especially dangerous and destructive. Each
bomb contains hundreds of small bomblets, of which anywhere from 5 to 25
percent fail to explode on impact. Their bright yellow or orange color and
interesting shape attract small children, and they look similar to food
ration packages distributed by the occupation authorities. When set off,
they erupt with enough force to destroy a tank, killing anyone within 10 to
20 meters. In the months following the end of the 1991 Gulf War, some 1,600
civilians were killed and another 2,500 injured by unexploded cluster

A documentary film on cluster bombs produced last year for the US public
television network entitled Bombies describes another of their attributes:
“Because the fragments travel at high velocity, when they strike people they
set up pressure waves within the body that do horrific damage to soft tissue
and organs: even a single fragment hitting somewhere else in the body can
rupture the spleen, or cause the intestines to explode. This is not an
unfortunate, unintended side effect; these bombs were designed to do this.”

The film points out that unexploded bomblets become less stable over time.
Pointing to the estimated 90 million—some reportedly filled with sarin nerve
gas—dropped by US forces over Laos during the Vietnam War, the documentary
notes that even now hardly a day goes by without someone in Laos being
killed by one of the remaining unexploded munitions.

In Iraq, the bombs’ instability is accentuated by the 100-degree-plus summer
heat. For this reason, bomb removal experts are generally able to work only
very early or very late in the day. Children at play, however, cannot be
expected to take such precautions.

To date, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of
Staff, has acknowledged that US forces dropped 1,500 aerial cluster bombs
during the assault on Iraq, which alone would produce hundreds of thousands
of bomblets. However, the US military refuses to say how many cluster bombs
were shot from tanks and other artillery, a number that could reach into the
tens of thousands. Human Rights Watch obtained several videos of the US 3rd
Infantry Division using what could only have been cluster bombs during its
march on Baghdad.

British forces acknowledge dropping 60 cluster bombs from the air, while
launching 2,000 from the ground. When challenged about the legality of using
such indiscriminate anti-personnel weapons in heavily populated areas,
British armed forces minister Adam Ingram told BBC radio: “Cluster bombs are
not illegal. They are very effective weapons. There were troops, there was
equipment in and around built-up areas. Therefore the bombs were used
accordingly to take out the threat to our troops.”

It is true that the 1999 Ottawa Treaty—ratified by Britain but not the US or
Iraq—fails to ban cluster bombs specifically, even though unexploded
bomblets function in a similar manner to the banned anti-personnel mines.
However, the Geneva Conventions require combatants to take “all feasible
precautions” to minimize civilian casualties, making the use of cluster
bombs in Iraqi cities illegal under international law.

In the days leading up to the US-British invasion, numerous human rights
groups appealed to the American and British governments to refrain from the
use of cluster bombs entirely, or at least in populated areas. The appeals
were ignored, leaving the Iraqi people to suffer the consequences for years
to come.

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