Unfriendly Fire: Cluster Bombs Keep Killing

Jesus Suarez del Solar died instantly. The Lance Corporal was an early casualty of the U.S. war in Iraq, but he was not killed by enemy fire.

The 20-year-old stepped on our own unexploded ordnance on March 27, 2003. It is likely that the bomblet that killed Jesus was just one of thousands that the United States scattered in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Air Force dropped cluster bombs where he was patrolling just days before, and these deadly weapons leave behind tens or hundreds of thousands of unexploded bomblets which can be detonated days or even years later.

During 2003, the U.S. dropped or fired nearly 11,000 cluster bombs. These may have accounted for well over 200,000 individual bomblets. Although varied in size and configuration, a cluster munition is essentially a large canister-as long as 13 feet and weighing up to 1,000 pounds-packed with little exlosives. Designed to break open in mid-air, Its bomblets disperse over areas as large as two or three football fields. The bomblets-a single canister holds hundreds- range in size from the equivalent of a soda can down to a flashlight battery, and each is filledwith shrapnel and an explosive charge.

Cluster bombs are intended to explode on impact. But, according to independent and military analyses, failure rates range from 5 to 15 percent. In the field, the rate can climb as high as 40 percent when the submunition is buffeted by wind or rain, falls on uneven or soft terrain or encounters other environmental factors. This means that every cluster bomb attack leaves large numbers of dangerous unexploded bomblets.

A 2006 Handicap International report estimated that nearly 3,000 Iraqis have been victims of cluster bombs since 2003. The report goes on to fault U.S. and Iraqi officials for failing to adequately track unexploded ordnance casualties.

Even without that tracking, one thing is clear-- the number of cluster bomb-related deaths will continue to rise. The United States' use of them in Iraq exposes civilians to decades of danger.

A closer look at Cambodia-where the U.S. dropped cluster bombs extensively between 1969 and 1973-- forecasts a grim future. That war is long over, but the weapons still kill. In 2005, three Cambodian boys were playing with steel balls. The balls were thirty year old BLU-63s, some of tens of thousands dropped on their country long before they were born. The bomblets exploded. One boy died of massive abdominal injuries, and the two other boys were seriously injured. Handicap International asserts that over the last 40 years, in former warzones throughout the world, civilians have accounted for 98% of cluster bomb casualties.

But, civilians are not the only ones in danger. Like Jesus, U.S. service men and women are threatened. A USA Today report estimated at the end of 2003 that at least eight U.S. soldiers had been killed by unexploded bomblets. But, the Pentagon does not track cluster bomb casualties among U.S. soldiers, making it almost impossible to update or confirm these figures.

As one of the world's top manufacturers of cluster weapons, the United States should be leading the efforts to protect its own soldiers and civilians from these deadly little weapons. Eighty-two countries are now working together on an international agreement to ban cluster munitions, and the United States should be at the table.

The Bush Administration has so far refused to join the negotiations; but, there is some good news. The Senate passed a one-year de facto moratorium on the export of cluster bombs in September. This crucial first step must be followed with more concrete action-like the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act which is now gathering co-sponsors.

Passage of this bill would be a fitting tribute to Lance Corporal Jesus Suarez del Solar and other servicemen and women killed by our own bombs, and would help ensure that forty years from now children can safely play where war once raged.

Frida Berrigan is a Senior Program Associate at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Project.

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