WASHINGTON -- Reports that the Pentagon might use land mines designed to maim or
kill enemy soldiers in an invasion of Iraq have stirred anew the debate over
the U.S. refusal to sign an international treaty banning the use of such mines.
Defense Department records show that the U.S. military has stockpiled anti-
personnel mines in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and on the
Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The Pentagon won't comment on whether it
plans to use the mines in a possible attack on Iraq, which could come this
But the last time American forces used anti-personnel land mines was in the
1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraq, when about 118,000 were planted to protect
U.S. troops. Since then, 146 countries, but not the United States, have signed
the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The United States says it needs the mines to defend
South Korea until an effective alternative can be found.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered that U.S. forces phase out their
use of the mines by 2003, except in Korea. However, President Bush undertook a
study of that order, which still hasn't been completed.
Clinton said the United States would sign the treaty by 2006 if new
defensive technologies could be found to protect American soldiers in heavily
armed places such as the 150-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide Korean demilitarized
Groups that have been lobbying for the United States to comply with the
treaty are pushing Bush not to use the anti-personnel mines in Iraq. Mines
designed to protect against tanks or other armored vehicles are not banned
under the treaty.
"The deployment of anti-personnel landmines would fly in the face of a
worldwide effort to ban the use of weapons that often cause more damage to
civilians after the battle than to opposing forces during the conflict," wrote
Refugees International President Kenneth Bacon in a letter this week to Bush.
Bacon, who was Pentagon spokesman in the Clinton administration, said use
of the mines could turn world opinion against the United States and make it
harder to rehabilitate Iraq after a war because mine-clearing is an expensive
and dangerous process. About 26,000 people are still killed or injured each
year by old mines strewn on old battlefields in countries such as Angola,
Cambodia and Afghanistan.
Parts of Iraq are still plagued by the mines left over from the war, mostly
those sown by Iraq itself.
But unlike the mines once used, the new ones in the U.S. arsenal are so-
called "smart mines." These devices, generally spread from airplanes, are self-
destructing or self-disarming. They generally have three armed settings, for
four hours, 48 hours or 15 days, and are 99.99 percent effective, according to
Pentagon statements included in a recent General Accounting Office report.
The report by the GAO, an independent government investigating office, said
that some American commanders were reluctant to use anti-personnel mines in
the Gulf War. They feared casualties to their own troops and said using the
mines limited their forces' mobility.
The GAO also said commanders were frustrated by malfunctioning mines, which
could create "dudfields" where no one wanted to go and which presented a long-
But many military analysts say the new mines offer a reason for their
continued use. "U.S. mine warfare has undergone a remarkable transition in the
last 30 years," according to an analysis from GlobalSecurity.org. It said the
"smart" mines "lose the ability to inflict casualties once their military
utility on the battlefield is gone."
Even newer mines are in the works, including ones that would be
electronically directed to turn themselves on and off and would be able to
sense the direction from which a threat is coming.
But anti-mine campaigners have several objections to the new mines. They
say they still pose a hazard to civilians, who are sometimes caught in battles
and have to move through mine-laced land. They also question the claim that
almost all the mines will work as designed and say that if the United States
uses the "smart" mines, countries like Iraq, which also hasn't signed the
treaty, will be encouraged to continue using their old mines in reaction.
No matter what the United States does in a prospective war with Iraq,
Baghdad's action is probably already planned, said Rachel Stohl, an analyst at
the Center for Defense Information, a Pentagon watchdog group in Washington.
"Any U.S. operations in Iraq will have to contend with not only old mines,
but those already in the ground and any new mines which are laid," she said,
adding that it is impossible to quantify Iraq's stockpile of mines or its
ability to produce them on its own.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle