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Lack of Data Slowing Cluster Bomb Cleanup
Published on Sunday, April 27, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times
Lack of Data Slowing Cluster Bomb Cleanup
Group says it needs U.S. help to find and destroy unexploded devices that continue to take victims.
by Paul Watson
 

TARJELLA, Iraq — Kurdish sappers scouring the countryside for thousands of unexploded U.S. cluster bombs search with wooden stakes, gut instinct and the help of any survivors who stumble upon the lethal weapons.

It would be much faster and safer if the U.S. military provided details of where warplanes dropped cluster bombs in Iraq, but the only civilian agency clearing the devices has not yet been provided such information.

U.S. forces on the ground have been very open with technical information, such as an explanation of a new cluster bomb that the civilian mine-clearers hadn't seen before, said Sean Sutton, information manager for the Mines Advisory Group, a Britain-based charity.

But the group's request for map coordinates of cluster bomb targets has gone unanswered, he said. "I'm sure they will [tell us]," Sutton added. "It's only a matter of when, not if."

After the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kosovo, the United States and NATO eventually provided mine-clearing organizations with details on where cluster bombs had been dropped.

A U.S. military spokesman did not directly respond to questions on the issue Saturday. Rather, he stressed that is not the military's responsibility to help groups such as MAG with the cleanup.

"It's not for us to go with them; then we're responsible for what they're doing," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, with the U.S. Central Command in Qatar. "Our job is to restore order and assess conditions for humanitarian aid to come in. We're going about our business in a military fashion and a smart fashion and that's all we can do."

As the days pass, Sutton said, cluster bomblets take more victims across Iraq.

The U.S. military used at least three kinds of cluster bombs in Iraq, Sutton said. The most common that clearance teams see are BLU-97s, which contain yellow canisters as big as soda cans, and KB-1s, about the size of hand grenades.

A new type is designated BLU-108. Its puck-shaped bomblets pack a much more powerful blast that leaves a crater about three times bigger than the yellow canisters, Sutton said.

A single BLU-108 bomb drops four smaller charges designed to seek out heavily armored targets, such as tanks. They are supposed to self-destruct if they don't detect a suitable target.

"The only place we find them is in fields — unexploded," Sutton said. "I made a joke to the Marines who we called to help us identify them that they didn't seem to have worked very well.

"They gave me a funny look and said, 'Well, they do in the right place.' "

No matter the type, cluster bombs are known for killing civilians: A large percentage don't explode when dropped, but lie in wait for victims who can't see them or don't know what they are.

Many are curious children such as Nabil Khalil, 14, who is in a Kirkuk hospital after playing with a yellow cluster bomblet that he found in an abandoned Iraqi army camp. He lost one hand, suffered severe face injuries and can barely open his eyes.

The first to discover a new cluster-bomb field often become victims of the devices. Two weeks ago, a crewman working to rebuild a severed power line on the highway to Mosul stepped on a cluster bomblet that blew his leg off, said Waheed Khalid, a field operations manager for the non-governmental MAG.

Khalid and six of his sappers finally found what they believe is the last of 42 unexploded bomblets Saturday and blew them up. After one more check today they hope to declare the area safe for the power crew to return.

Arab farmer Mohammed Hussein Mohammed, worried about his wheat field next to the power line, stopped by to ask whether the MAG crew could clear his land next so he can harvest his crop in about three weeks.

Khalid said there was nothing he could do because he is struggling to deal with other clearance jobs first.

"I don't have enough people to clear all this area," he said. "I only have one priority — the electrical line."

Mohammed said he stopped U.S. soldiers on the highway last Monday and asked them to go with him to Tarjella to get rid of at least one cluster bomblet and a large rocket that had burrowed into the ground and failed to explode.

"They promised to bring a digger and some experts to take it out," he said. "But until now, no one has come."

The rocket left a hole about 1 yard across and 8 yards deep next to a house. It is covered by two sheets of corrugated iron anchored by cinder blocks from a bombed-out wall of the house.

The KB-1 cluster bomblet still lies in the hay in a mud-bricked barn, close to children playing beside an old car door. There is so much rubble in the village that no one knows whether more bomblets are waiting to explode.

The air attack killed a man identified as a local farmer, Saeed Amin Mohammed, 35, and wounded four people. At least 25 houses in the village were destroyed during about 15 minutes of airstrikes the day before the city of Mosul fell to coalition forces, the villagers said.

The villagers said no Iraqi soldiers were there at the time, only residents who had stayed to protect their houses after Iraqi soldiers abandoned the area. The roofs of several homes were pockmarked with 50 or more blast holes, suggesting they had been hit by cluster bombs.

After the linesman's accident alerted MAG to another cluster-bomb field across the highway, its sappers followed a painstaking routine to clear the area surrounding the pylons that were damaged by the bombing of an Iraqi army position.

The job was especially difficult because it was raining when four cluster bombs, each containing about 64 bomblets, were dropped on the area, Khalid said. Most of the bomblets that didn't explode sank into the mud. So Khalid's crew had to look for hints of explosives buried some 6 inches into now-dry ground.

Walking six abreast through the former camp and surrounding wheat fields, in helmets and light flak jackets, they gently beat the weeds and wheat with wooden stakes. It's decidedly low-tech, but a lot faster than using electronic equipment that searches for metal, Khalid said.

In most cases, the unexploded bomblets' triangular, pillow-shaped parachutes sat on the surface and gave away the ordinance buried beneath. But some had broken off, leaving the sappers to judge what might lurk below by the lay of the land.

They marked the location of each unexploded bomblet with a red flag. Then the sappers unpacked their PE-4 plastic explosive, made in 1989 at the former Yugoslavia's UNIS-Sarajevo Chemical Factory.

After molding the white, candle-shaped charges into balls, they wrapped them in brown wax paper and attached each to lengths of blue detonation cord. The current from a small crank-operated detonation box blew up 23 cluster bomblets in one big blast.

It hardly made a dent in Iraq's overwhelming burden of unexploded ordnance and mines.

The Iraqi army left behind an enormous quantity of materiel that doctors say is injuring people every day, mostly children playing with artillery shells, hand grenades, cluster bombs and other explosives.

In Kirkuk alone, hospitals say 44 people have died and 46 more have been injured by unexploded ordnance since the city fell to coalition control, Sutton said. The death toll is more than double the approximately 20 civilians killed in the city during the war, he added.

In areas of northeastern Iraq once controlled by Ansar al Islam, a militant group that the U.S. says has links to Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, the situation is complicated by booby traps, such as artillery shells attached to trip wires, he said.

Sutton's sappers, who have worked in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq since 1991, have yet to reach central and southern Iraq, where he said there are no civilian agencies clearing unexploded ordinance.

He hopes to have MAG crews deployed across the country in the coming months. But he added that the organization is already working overtime in a losing battle to find and clear the weapons before they maim or kill and needs more money to take on more territory.

Near the village of Dibaga, on a strategic highway linking Kirkuk to Mosul, a girl and two adults were killed April 18 when they tried to clear cluster bombs from a spot they had chosen for a picnic, said shepherd Dara Mohammad.

Sandbagged foxholes and the shrapnel-tattered leg of an Iraqi army uniform leave no doubt that the picnic site once was an Iraqi army camp.

A week later, at least half a dozen unexploded KB-1 bomblets were still scattered around the area. Dozens more littered a field where Masoud Samad grazes about 150 sheep.

Three of the sheep were killed when they mistook the white cloth ribbons fastened in a loop atop the bomblets as something to eat, the shepherd said. Near one of the unexploded bomblets was half a leaflet dropped by U.S. planes to warn Iraqi soldiers.

"Coalition forces are coming to finish Saddam Hussein's regime, so don't involve yourself in the fighting," it reads.

"This is a chance to give yourself up to coalition forces."

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