Cluster Bombs in Iraq: The Deadly Footprint

In late April 2003, I was traveling back to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad from the northern city of Mosul where I had been making an assessment of humanitarian needs after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was a bright spring day and under ordinary circumstances the drive would have been quite beautiful. The road took us through fertile farmland, vast wheat fields, and semi-arid regions where sheep grazed.

But these were not ordinary times. The journey was slowed by massive convoys of the omnipresent U.S. military which had invaded Iraq just a few weeks earlier. We passed melted high wire towers, burnt out tanks, and demolished buildings. The driver skirted bomb craters in the roadway and made long detours to find bridges that had not been bombed. The debris of modern warfare littered the landscape and the destruction seared my heart.

My traveling companion that day was a young woman from Denmark who had been a de-miner in Kosovo for several years. Christina's considerable knowledge of the weapons of war added new layers of understanding to the devastation we were witnessing.

Just outside a small town near Beji, Christina gasped and asked the driver to slow down. She pointed out the tell-tale signs of the use of cluster bombs and showed me where to look for the pattern of craters, or "footprint."

Cluster bombs are munitions either dropped from the air or launched from artillery that contain dozens and often hundreds of smaller sub-munitions, often called "bomblets." Cluster bombs blanket a broad area often as large as the size of two football fields with these bomblets. They also result in numerous of hazardous, unexploded sub-munitions, or "duds."

As Christina scribbled notes about the location, I gazed out the window at the harmless looking little canisters, no bigger than a can of coke, which she explained were unexploded bomblets. The spring wheat was just emerging and in a couple of weeks it would be knee high, and those little bomblets would disappear into a lethal sea of golden wheat, endangering every person who walked through or worked those fields.

This was our first encounter with the use of cluster bombs in Iraq. Unfortunately, it was not the last.

Several days later, we were visiting the hospitals in the Babylonian city of Hilla, south of Baghdad. The doctors spoke of the injuries and deaths they had seen among the civilians from cluster bombs that had been used in the densely populated streets of Hilla, when the U.S. swept through the area in early April.

In the months that followed, every meeting of international non-governmental organizations (INGo's) included reports about the massive amounts of unexploded ordinance that littered Iraq. Cluster bombs pose a risk to the population until the day when all the bomblets are cleaned up. Children were particularly vulnerable, and a campaign was organized to educate the population to the risks.

Tens of thousands of flyers outlining the risks in easily understandable pictures were distributed. But U.S. military and "Coalition" authorities refused to quickly provide life-saving information about where and how many munitions had been used. This delayed efforts to start the long process of de-mining and further endangered the people.

This threat to civilians was tangibly brought home to us nearly a year later in February 2004. While visiting the orthotics/Prosthesis Workshop at Baghdad's Center for Rehabilitation and Physiotherapy, we met Raed. A farmer from Balad, Raed had been tending his fields as he and his father before him had done. On a day in September, he had stepped on a "dud." His leg and most of his fingers had been blown off. His life as a farmer was finished, and he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. That golden field of wheat had indeed turned deadly.

Less than a month later and half way around the world, we were, once again, brought face to face with another tragic facet of the use of cluster bombs when my husband, Rick McDowell, and I returned for a visit to the United States. On March 1, 2004, in San Diego, CA, we shared the stage with Fernando Suarez del Solar. A gentle man and proud father, Fernando shared his profound grief at the death of his 20-year-old son. Jesus, an immigrant from Mexico, was one of the first U.S. Marines killed during the invasion of Iraq. He died when he stepped on a cluster bomblet that had been dropped the day before by the U.S. Air Force.

According to the December 2003 Human Rights Watch study, "Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq," US and British forces used as many as 13,000 cluster bombs, containing nearly 2 million sub-munitions. "The use of cluster munitions in populated areas caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the coalition's conduct of major military operations at that stage of the conflict," the report states.

Cluster munitions were also used during the Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, and subsequent Coalition Forces operations in the "no fly zones" of north and south Iraq during the 1990s. In "Fatal Footprint: The Global Human Impact of Cluster Munitions" (November 2006), Handicap International reports that limited casualty data is available due to insecurity, a lack of political will, and the absence of a comprehensive data management system. In some areas of Iraq, cluster bomb casualties represent between 75 percent and 80 percent of all casualties.

In Iraq, as in other war zones where cluster bombs have been used, the effects of war will continue for generations. The war will only end for Iraqis when all the remnants of cluster bombs are removed from Mesopotamia, and the world community bans their use forever. Regardless of current political or military efforts to end the violence in Iraq, cluster munitions indeed leave a fatal footprint.

Urge your senators to cosponsor the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S. 594) that would ban the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas and prohibit the sale, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster bombs. Call your senators on Monday, November 5, using a toll free number: (800) 352-1897. For more information:

Mary Trotochaud, a Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) consultant, lived and worked in Iraq outside of the Green Zone with her husband Rick McDowell for nearly two years after the U.S. invasion. Mary and Rick then worked for 16 months with FCNL lobbying Congress on Iraq policy. She is now coordinating the Maine Campaign to Ban Cluster Bombs. She can be reached at

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