Officials are paving the way for the unexpected and radical step at talks in Dublin on an international treaty aimed at a worldwide ban on the bombs.
Well-placed sources made clear yesterday that despite opposition from the military, the government is prepared to get rid of the cluster munitions in Britain's armoury: the lsraeli-designed M85 artillery weapon used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and in attacks on Lebanon two years ago; and the M73, part of a weapons system for Apache helicopters.
"The prime minister is very much behind this process and wants us to sign [the treaty]", a senior Foreign Office source said yesterday.
Ireland, which is chairing the talks, wants a treaty text to be adopted tonight. "If we sign up to the treaty we will lose the M85 and the M73", the source said. While the government appears happy for British forces to get rid of their M85 weapons immediately, it wants a "phasing out period" for its M73s.
The agreement, expected to be confirmed today, ends a long-running Whitehall dispute which has pitted the Ministry of Defence against the FO and Department for International Development. The MoD says the number of cluster bombs in the armoury is "operationally sensitive" but concedes that decommissioning them will cost tens of millions of pounds.
Participants in the talks were still embroiled last night in the vexed question of whether troops from countries who sign up to the ban could go on operations with those, notably the US, that do not. Preventing them from doing so could lead to breaches in other treaty commitments, notably involving Nato, and would have serious practical implications, British officials say. The government also wants to allow the US to stockpile cluster weapons at American bases in the UK.
Pressure would be applied on the US not to use its cluster weapons in joint operations with countries which had banned them, officials suggest.
Cluster weapons are highly controversial because they scatter small "bomblets" over a wide area. Many of them do not explode on impact and are activated later by civilians. They caused more than 200 civilian casualties in the year after the Lebanon ceasefire, and more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system.
The M85 was fired by British troops around Basra during the invasion of Iraq. According to the MoD, they made a "direct contribution to saving the lives of UK service personnel".
The M73 rocket, part of the Apache's weapons system, is fired from pods on the attack helicopters and can also be fitted to Harrier jets. In its defence of their use, MoD officials have argued that they were "direct fire" weapons - in other words a pilot firing them can see the target - and that a single weapon had fewer than 10 "bomblets".
However, that figure refers to the number in just one rocket pod, and an Apache can carry a total of 684 in its cluster weapons, campaigners say.
Human rights groups campaigning for a ban on all cluster bombs said yesterday the planned treaty was being threatened by the refusal of the US to remove stocks from its airforce bases on UK territory.
Simon Conway, a former soldier and the director of Landmine Action UK, said: "Gordon Brown has pushed the Dublin negotiations in the right direction. Now is the time for him to have the courage of his convictions and tell the US that it cannot store these outdated and indiscriminate weapons on UK soil."
Article 1 of the planned treaty, due to be signed in Oslo in early December, prohibits assistance with the use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. The US, Israel, Russia, China, India and Pakistan are not taking part in the talks.
© 2008 The Guardian