WASHINGTON -- The US military has used cluster munitions in the war in Iraq that leave behind high numbers of unexploded ordnance, creating dangers for US soldiers, future peacekeepers, and Iraqi civilians for years to come, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. The group renewed its call for the Pentagon to ban the weapons.
An Army official said it was not certain whether the Multiple Launch Rocket System was being used in Iraq. But researchers at Human Rights Watch say television images and stories from reporters traveling with US units show that these launchers, which are mounted on tracked vehicles, have fired large numbers of missiles carrying submunitions.
''You want to use weapons to help you accomplish your military mission,'' said Stephen Goose, head of the arms division of Human Rights Watch. ''But do you need to use weapons that will pose dangers for years to come for people you are supposed to be liberating? There will be a very large number of munitions left on the battlefield, which will soon become not a battlefield but a farm field.''
ARTILLERY CLUSTER BOMB
The 155mm M483A1 DPICM delivers 88 dual-purpose grenades to defeat armor and personnel targets.
In addition to the cluster munitions fired from launchers on the ground, human rights and veterans groups have called on the US military to suspend use of cluster bombs and land mines because of the long-term dangers to civilians. They also have warned about weaponry containing depleted uranium because of possible adverse health effects.
Goose said his organization was most concerned with cluster munitions launched by artillery units of the Army's Third Infantry Division. There have been no reports in Iraq of coalition forces using antipersonnel mines or aerial cluster bombs. US forces have fired shells tipped with depleted uranium at Iraqi tanks, a US military official said yesterday.
On cluster munitions, an Army rocket launcher fires M26 warheads -- each containing 644 individual submunitions -- that are dispersed in a wide area, usually upon front-line troops or vehicles. A Defense Department report submitted to Congress in 2000 found that 16 percent of these submunitions don't explode in the initial firing and then essentially become land mines.
In a typical volley of 12 rockets, a 16 percent failure rate results in more than 1,200 unexploded submunitions scattered randomly over an area of 120,000 to 240,000 square meters, according to Human Rights Watch.
Other cluster munitions possibly used in Iraq include M483-A1 and M864 projectiles, which have a 14 percent ''dud'' or failure rate; and the Army Tactical Missile System, which targets air-defense sites and uses submunitions with a failure rate of 2 percent.
In January 2001, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen signed a policy statement that said all future submunitions had to have a failure rate of 1 percent or less. But the agreement did not cover huge stockpiles of submunitions already on hand.
US Army Major Amy Hannah said yesterday that while she was ''not certain'' whether the Army had fired such munitions, ''these types of munitions are essential for target sets like troops in the open, thin-skinned vehicles in the open, and air defense radars. These are traditional ways in which we have combatted targets like this.''
Hannah said the Army was now developing new cluster munitions that have a ''self-destruct fuse to eliminate duds on the battlefield. We are addressing those unexploded ordnance issues now.''
Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who serves as an unofficial adviser to senior Defense Department officials, said yesterday that ''a lot of the complaints about the munitions are correct. They should have been fixed. A lot of these problems go back to the Vietnam days and to the Gulf War. Perhaps we weren't sufficiently sensitive to some of the risks here.''
The US military last used ground-based cluster munitions in the 1991 Gulf War. More than 4,000 Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians were killed or wounded by the duds after the war. During the war, 80 US casualties were reported from the duds.
Human Rights Watch said that two US Marines were killed in separate instances on March 27 and March 28 after stepping on unexploded cluster munitions fired by coalition artillery in southern Iraq. But spokesmen from the Marines and Central Command said they could not confirm that that happened.
US military officials have said that they might use land mines in Iraq to protect troops. The United States is not a signatory of the Ottawa Convention, which bans the use of mines. Many Gulf War veterans have expressed concern about possible adverse health effects from inhaling depleted uranium particles. Some have argued that it might be one of the causes of the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome. About 320 tons of depleted uranium were used in the 1991 war.
At a Pentagon briefing last month, Michael Kilpatrick, head of the Deployment Health Support Directorate, said studies of 90 Gulf War veterans who were struck by shrapnel containing depleted uranium during the war have shown no internal damage to organs outside their injuries. But advocates of veterans have contended that the Pentagon has not adequately studied those who came in contact with depleted uranium particles.
Asked whether the Army would use depleted uranium in an urban setting, Army Colonel Jim Naughton said at the briefing: ''The only reason we would be using it in an urban environment is if our opponents take their tanks into an urban environment and we have to kill them. So that's the scenario. So is it likely? That depends upon how the enemy reacts.''
Ross Kerber of the Globe staff and correspondent Bryan Bender contributed to this report.
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