Published on Thursday, May 15, 2003 by the Associated Press
Questions Linger About Hillah Battle That Left Hundreds of Civilian Casualties
HILLAH, Iraq, May 15 — The telltale evidence is everywhere: in the pattern of blast marks gouged in a schoolyard's concrete, in the yellow metal casings that once held small bombs, in the bomblets themselves. ''They're all over. They're even in people's bedrooms,'' said one bomb disposal specialist.
A month after U.S. cluster munitions fell in a deadly shower on Hillah's teeming slums as U.S. forces drove toward victory in Baghdad, 55 miles to the north, the most telling evidence may lie in the crowded, fly-infested wards of the city hospital, where the toll of dead and wounded still mounts.
At least 250 Iraqis were killed and more than 500 wounded during 17 days of fighting in the area, most of them civilians and many the victims of cluster munitions, according to hospital medical staff. Leftover bomblets still kill or maim hapless civilians daily, they said.
As the pieces of the story of what happened in Hillah in late March and early April begin to fall together, gaps and uncertainties remain, including the question of whether Iraqi troops were still in Nadr, Amira and other Hillah-area districts when they were attacked.
On April 3, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command indicated the matter was being investigated. The next day he added that U.S. targeting in such densely populated areas was ''very precise.''
A month later, the command's Lt. Herb Josey said, ''It is correct to assume the investigation is still going on.'' The command has received no results yet, he said, without describing what the investigation consisted of.
While Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed last month that high-flying B-52s dropped cluster bombs during the push to Baghdad, the Pentagon has not acknowledged the use of cluster munitions around Hillah.
Such weapons — delivered by rockets, howitzer shells and air-dropped bombs — open up before impact to scatter many tiny bomblets over wide areas, sometimes the size of a football field. They're considered effective weapons for attacking massed soldiers and vehicles and for blocking troop movements.
They were first used in the Indochina War, when U.S. aircraft dropped them on enemy jungle camps and supply trails. Unexploded bomblets still pose a hazard to civilians there. Leftover duds also inflict casualties in Afghanistan, Angola, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kuwait.
The use of such weapons is not explicitly banned under international law, but human rights groups think it should be — or at least prohibited in populated areas as too indiscriminate.
They also point to the weapons' high ''dud rate'' — the percentage that don't explode on impact, leaving stray bomblets to kill the unsuspecting later. Military experts say artillery-fired cluster munitions have a dud rate of up to 5 percent, but New York-based Human Rights Watch claims the rates for some artillery types are three to four times higher.
Human Rights Watch on April 25 accused the Pentagon of a ''whitewash,'' of minimizing in its public statements the deadly effect of cluster munitions on Iraqi civilians by discussing only aerial bombs and not artillery shells, which the group says caused most civilian casualties from cluster munitions in Iraq.
On March 31 and April 1, and apparently on later dates as well, cluster munitions fell among Iraqi peasants in and around their homes in Nadr, Amira, Kifl and other districts mostly on Hillah's southern edge.
Meeting with journalists in Washington recently, Lt. Gen. William Scott Wallace, who commanded the U.S. Army's V Corps during the war, specifically mentioned Hillah among several southern cities where the Iraqi military ''was much more aggressive than what we expected him to be.''
The U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division was pushing north through the green, irrigated countryside between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Its next objective was Hillah, a town said to have been built centuries ago with bricks from the nearby ruins of ancient Babylon.
First the paratroopers had to pass through the Nadr quarter, straddling Highway 8.
How the cluster munitions were delivered — by air or by artillery — is lost in confused Iraqi memories and in the U.S. military's silence on the subject. Wherever they came from, by April 1 hellish scenes were unfolding at Hillah Surgical Hospital. Foreign journalists, bused to Hillah by Saddam Hussein's Information Ministry, found dozens of dead and wounded civilians, many children, jammed into coffins and lying in hallways.
The besieged doctors reported 33 dead civilians and more than 300 wounded, many from Nadr.
Over 17 days, from all bombing and other fighting, the hospital's records indicate about 500 civilians were wounded, and the hospital's director, Dr. Adil al-Himiri, said about 250 people were killed, both military and civilian. The death records are not available, because they were taken to Baghdad subsequently by an Iraqi doctor, he said.
Weeks after the attacks, some victims were still hospitalized, including 13-year-old Faleh Hassan, who lost a hand and has needed several operations for severe foot wounds.
An uncle, Hadi Maraza, said five in Faleh's family were wounded. ''I think it was artillery shells,'' Maraza said of the April 1 events. ''Before landing they sent small bombs flying, like balls.'' He said no Iraqi soldiers were in the area. ''It was random shelling.''
With Saddam's regime toppled, the hospital staff felt freer to talk by late April. What they said tended to justify the U.S. attack.
''The old regime put military tanks in between the houses, and so they were bombed,'' said al-Himiri, the hospital director. ''It's the truth. There were military targets.''
Another doctor, surgeon Majid al-Khafaji, said he had heard similar stories from wounded people.
But the doctors acknowledged they hadn't gone to the bombed areas themselves. Civil defense workers who went to Nadr immediately said they saw no sign of the Iraqi military there.
That agrees with what Nadr residents consistently said: The Iraqi military had set up mortars or artillery in Nadr, apparently in a date-palm grove on the fringe of the slum, but had pulled out. Some believe they left days before the U.S. strike with cluster munitions; some think it was a day before.
Nadr is a place of tightly packed mud-brick homes, garbage-filled paths, herds of goats wandering along gullied tracks. A schoolyard — a rare stretch of concrete — is pocked with an almost regular pattern of blast marks that appear to have come from cluster bomblets. But there are none of the burned-out tanks, other military vehicles or destroyed weapons commonly seen in areas where U.S. forces struck Iraqi troops.
Salem Farhan, 33, a factory worker, said Iraqi artillery in Nadr fired at distant U.S. troops and then withdrew a day before the first cluster-bomb attacks. ''They left a few soldiers behind, like neighborhood guards,'' he said. ''Maybe the planes were attacking them.''
Repeated U.S. shelling or bombing came as late as April 8, when Farhan's house was hit and a neighbor woman and child were killed as they took shelter in his yard. His two younger brothers were badly wounded. ''There was no reason. There was no resistance here,'' Farhan said.
Deaths still come daily, as duds explode when picked up, kicked or otherwise disturbed. ''I've dealt with 300 cluster bombs in one day,'' said Hillal Saadi, a civil defense explosives specialist, who destroys duds by piling them up and dynamiting them.
The Hillah area civil defense director, Hussein Jaber, said unexploded bomblets had been retrieved from schoolrooms and people's bedrooms.
A corner of his office's front lot is heaped with examples recovered from surrounding areas — from dark gray, 3-inch-long bomblets to two bulbous, 6-foot-long, yellow-green shells that held hundreds of bomblets.
Saadi, whose ordnance-disposal experience stretches back to the 1991 Gulf War, said the Americans have adopted more advanced cluster munitions. For one thing, ''there are more fragments,'' he said, and held up a shattered yellow metal shell stamped ''Bomb, Frag, BLU-97A/B.''
''Children were playing with this one when it exploded,'' he said. ''Two were killed and six wounded. It happened three days before the fall of Baghdad'' — that is, on April 5.
The BLU-97 is one of the most sophisticated U.S. cluster weapons, capable of scattering 40 bomblets over a 4,800-square-yard area and deadly against tanks as well as soldiers in the open.
At the same time that Hillah residents were unearthing mass graves of victims of Saddam's bloody repression, hospital officials said they were recording as many as four deaths a day from exploding U.S. leftovers. Al-Himiri, the hospital director, was clearly troubled even though he believes U.S. forces had legitimate military targets to attack.
''From a military point of view, it's justified,'' he said. ''But from a humanitarian point of view it's not justified.''
EDITOR'S NOTE — Associated Press reporters Sameer N. Yacoub, who reported from Hillah after March 31-April 1 attacks, and Richard Pyle in New York contributed to this story.© 2003 Associated Press.