WASHINGTON - US plans to respond to international pressure over the use of cluster bombs by phasing out the amount of unexploded bomblets they contain, were today branded as "meaningless" by campaigners.
A three-page Pentagon memo pledges that after 2018, more than 99% of the explosives in cluster bombs must detonate on impact.
The US defence department also agreed to reduce its inventory of devices that do not meet this standard from June next year.
But it also defended cluster bombs, claiming they "provide distinct advantages against a range of targets and can result in less collateral damage" than other weapons and adds that total elimination would be "unacceptable".
The memo is a response to talks in Dublin held in May, when 111 countries, including the UK, agreed to ban cluster bombs.
The US did not attend, and neither did Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan, countries that all use cluster bombs and cite the military value of the deadly explosives.
Under the agreement, which will be signed in a treaty in Olso in December, all stockpiles of cluster bombs will be destroyed within eight years.
Campaigners claim the Pentagon's plan is motivated by an attempt to sell stocks of bombs with a high proportion of unexploded munitions that kill and maim innocent civilians. They also claim it highlights US isolation on the issue.
Rae McGrath, spokesman for Handicap International, said: "The statement is an indication that the US is under pressure to 'be seen' to respond to the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions - that is a good sign, and perhaps bodes well for the post election period.
"However the 'response' is quite meaningless in reality - a large percentage of the problems caused over 40 years have been caused by cluster weapons claimed to have low failure rates and it is now widely accepted that no effective methods of testing failure rates exist.
He added: "To wait another 10 years before banning cluster munitions has more to do with protecting existing stockpiles than with concern for the communities devastated by these weapons."
Thomas Nash, international coordinator for the Cluster Munition Coalition, said the Pentagon's policy was "completely outrageous".
"They are trying to find ways of addressing the concerns of their allies abroad and critics at home, but these measures fall well short. They are surprisingly weak even for the Americans."
"The only good thing is that they are not going to have many countries to sell the weapons to, because 111 countries signed up to banning them," he said.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy who has led efforts to outlaw cluster munitions in the US, said the Pentagon's plans were a step back.
He accused the Bush administration of "another squandered opportunity for US leadership".
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008