To deny Iraqi forces access to sites containing chemical or biological weapons, US military commanders have plans under certain scenarios to drop small land mines from warplanes around enemy weapons sites, preventing Iraqis from taking away or using dangerous arms.
Leftover land mines take a huge toll on civilians, 800 deaths per month worldwide, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.
The more the US uses or retains the right to use land mines, the more the government is on the outside of the international norm banning these indiscriminate weapons of terror. No land mine is smart enough to distinguish between a soldier and a child.
To minimize civilian casualties during and after an assault, US military doctrine calls for almost all mines to include timers that cause them to self-destruct after a preset period.
The mines also include deactivation features, so they will eventually disarm themselves, even if the timers fail. A newer generation of computer-controlled land mines meant to further reduce civilian casualties won't be ready in time for an invasion of Iraq.
But the US policy on mines is at odds with that of Britain and most other nations, which have agreed not to use land mines. In Britain, members of Parliament are demanding that their forces stick to a treaty it has signed banning use of land mines.
There is a dispute whether the kind of mines that US forces plan to use would be a violation of the treaty, although the United States has not signed it.
In the United States, opponents of land mines say that the use of such munitions in an attack on Iraq would be a blow to the campaign to ban their use. That campaign took off in the 1990s with the backing of figures like Vermont activist Jody Williams, who shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy against land mines, and the late Princess Diana.
''The more the US uses or retains the right to use land mines, the more the government is on the outside of the international norm banning these indiscriminate weapons of terror,'' said Gina Coplon-Newfield, coordinator of US Campaign to Ban Landmines, a Boston group that first called attention to the Pentagon's intentions. ''No land mine is smart enough to distinguish between a soldier and a child.''
Members of Congress including Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, have also called on President Bush not to use land mines in Iraq.
In a letter last month to Bush, McGovern said that spreading land mines in Iraq ''would pose serious dangers to innocent civilians, our own troops, and future peacekeepers involved with post-conflict reconstruction.''
Since 1997, 131 countries have ratified a treaty banning such weapons. Neither the United States nor Iraq has agreed to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, which is better known as the Ottawa convention.
CBU-78 CLUSTER BOMB
The 500 pound CBU-78 contains 45 antitank and 15 antipersonnel mines. These mines can be detonated by target sensors (magnetic field for antitank and trip line for antipersonnel) or by a disturbance- antidisturbance device. They also have a backup self-destruct time set before aircraft launch.
During Desert Storm the Navy and the Marine Corps dropped 209 CBU-78s.
The Clinton administration said it would try to end the use of land mines everywhere except Korea by 2003 and in Korea by 2006. The Bush administration is reviewing the policy.
''We are committed to developing a policy that addresses both humanitarian and war-fighting concerns,'' said a Pentagon official who would only respond to questions on condition of anonymity. In an e-mail message, the official said that any use of land mines by the United States would be consistent with international laws on conventional weapons and that allied nations ''that are parties to Ottawa would follow their own obligations in accordance with that treaty.''
''At the same time, the United States has a responsibility to protect its men and women in uniform,'' the official wrote. ''The use of land mines by US forces does not contribute to the global land mine problem.'' Members of Britain's Parliament have asked the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to seek assurances from US officials that mines won't be used in an attack on Iraq.
''It would be a tragic irony if a conflict that is supposed to be about upholding international arms controls resulted in the UK and others effectively tearing up their commitments,'' said Richard Lloyd, director of Landmine Action, a London organization that lobbies against the weapons and runs mine-clearing operations in Africa. Steve Atkins, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington, said Britain remains ''fully committed to our obligations under Ottawa.''
''The US is well aware of our position on antipersonnel land mines,'' he said.
But the use of mines described by the Pentagon might not violate the Ottawa convention under an interpretation in which the mines could be classified as ''antihandling devices,'' Atkins said. Unlike mines, which are meant to kill or injure, Atkins said, antihandling devices are meant to prevent the enemy from using equipment or facilities, like a weapons factory.
US plans to deploy land mines came to light at a press briefing at the Pentagon March 5 that focused on how US forces would try to minimize civilian casualties in Iraq.
During the briefing, a defense official described how small land mines could be used to prevent enemy forces from gaining access to a site containing chemical or biological weapons.
''You might deny access to that [site] by using self-destructing small mines -- and these are air-deliverable -- that have a 24-hour or 48-hour self-destructing capability. And so you could keep people from going in and taking something out of that facility,'' the official said.
US military spokesmen declined to identify the official who gave the March 5 briefing, except to describe the official as a senior officer from the US Central Command in Tampa, which directs operations in the Middle East.
The official didn't specify which mines could be used. But military specialists said what the official described was a cluster bomb like the CBU-78 Gator, a 500-pound cannister that scatters 45 tank and 15 antipersonnel mines.
An antipersonnel mine ejects tripwires when it hits the ground and kills or maims by a blast of fragments. The US military said safety devices that disarm the weapons after 48 hours should reduce civilian casualties.
But activists in the campaign against land mines said such weapons are little different than older antipersonnel devices that kill thousands of civilians a year long after conflicts have ended. They said that within the first two days the weapons can injure medical personnel and other noncombatants and that the self-destruction timers can fail.
US defense contractors are working on a replacement mine, known as the ''non-self-destructing antipersonnel land mine alternative.'' Designers envision a mine activated only after a US soldier has verified the enemy's presence.
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