Now that the war in Iraq has ended, the U.S. military must quickly
remove thousands of unexploded cluster bombs to keep its promise to do
everything possible to limit civilian casualties, human rights groups say.
Estimates of casualties caused by the deadly munitions vary. Gen. Richard
Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the weapons caused only one
civilian death during the three-week war. Other estimates put the number
closer to 200.
Human rights groups caution that more will die as unsuspecting civilians --
especially children -- inadvertently detonate unexploded bombs with the
William Hartung, a military expert at the World Policy Institute's Arms
Trade Resource Center at the New School in New York, said the Pentagon's use
of cluster bombs is "contrary to the rhetoric of how they were going to fight
the war -- a clean war with minimal civilian casualties."
Each 1,000-pound cluster bomb contains between 200 and 300 "bomblets" --
canisters that can explode into hundreds of fragments over an area the size of
several football fields.
According to Myers, U.S. warplanes dropped 1,500 cluster bombs in Iraq, 26
of them within 1,500 feet of civilian neighborhoods. Britain's Ministry of
Defense said the British army fired by artillery or rocket launchers more than
2,000 cluster munitions and dropped 66 cluster bombs around Basra.
U.S. troops have reportedly removed about 600 unexploded bomblets from the
Baghdad neighborhood of Doura. But unexploded cluster bombs still litter
cities such as Najaf, and their existence has become another source of
resentment felt by Iraqis toward the occupying U.S. forces.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Jay Steuck says cluster bombs were used
because they are especially effective in destroying airfields, tanks and enemy
convoys. He added that the bomblets, which fail to explode upon impact between
5 percent and 20 percent of the time, cause less physical destruction than
"The (Defense) Department carefully considers the use of any weapon systems,
" said Steuck. "There is no intent to cause unwanted civilian deaths during or
after the fact."
However, the use of cluster bombs in the Iraq war figures in a suit filed
Wednesday in a Belgian court that accuses U.S. commander Gen. Tommy Franks and
a Marine officer named Col. Brian P. McCoy of war crimes.
Belgian attorney Jan Fermon says he represents 17 Iraqi and 2 Jordanian
civilian victims of U.S. weapons, four of whom were wounded by cluster bombs.
His suit is made possible by a unique 1993 Belgian law that claims universal
jurisdiction for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, regardless
of the nationality of the accused.
In an interview by e-mail, Fermon conceded that there is no law
specifically banning cluster weapons, but argued that the "use of ammunition
that causes severe suffering and injury in areas with a civilian population is
a violation of international humanitarian rights. I hope that this complaint
will contribute to a general ban on cluster bombs."
The State Department dismissed the lawsuit as political harassment.
"The Belgian government needs to be diligent in taking steps to prevent
abuse of the legal system for political ends," department spokesman Richard
Boucher said last month.
But the use of cluster bombs -- a single fragment of which can rupture the
spleen or cause intestines to explode upon impact -- has long been
After the war in Kosovo, during which U.S., British and Dutch aircraft
dropped 1,765 cluster bombs, the Red Cross appealed for a new global law
outlawing the weapons.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, more than 1,600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi
civilians were killed and 2,500 injured by an estimated 1.2 million unexploded
cluster bombs, according to Human Rights Watch. The casualties included 80 U.S. soldiers.
In a survey of NATO's 78-day bombing of Kosovo in 1999, the International
Committee of the Red Cross found that cluster bombs killed 50 people and
injured 101 the year after the conflict ended. The report also said that
children were five times more likely to be killed or injured by a NATO cluster
bomb than by a Serbian land mine.
In Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch estimated U.S. cluster bombs killed or
injured 127 civilians.
Critics say Myers' estimate of deaths caused by cluster bombs in the Iraq
war omitted ground-launched cluster munitions, which were reportedly used more
extensively in Iraq than the air-dropped variety. A multiple-rocket launcher
can fire 12 cluster bombs at a time, each of which has 644 bomblets.
"On one night, we received 35 dead from cluster bombs," Dr. Safaal-Amaidi,
director of Najaf Teaching Hospital, told Reuters last month.
On April 7, Rashid Majid and three of his sons were killed after they
picked up an unexploded bomblet in Baghdad, according to Western press
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle