Cluster bombs kill in Iraq, even after shooting ends
By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY
BAGHDAD ? The little canisters dropped onto the city, white ribbons trailing behind. They clattered into streets, landed in lemon trees, rattled around on roofs, settled onto lawns.
When Jassim al-Qaisi saw the canisters the size of D batteries falling on his neighborhood just before 7 a.m. April 7, he laughed and asked himself: "Now what are the Americans throwing on our heads?"
The strange objects were fired by U.S. artillery outside Baghdad as U.S. forces approached the Iraqi capital. In the span of a few minutes, they would kill four civilians in the al-Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad and send al-Qaisi's teenage son to the hospital with metal fragments in his foot.
Cluster bomb: A bomb that contains dozens or hundreds of small explosives and is dropped by aircraft.
Cluster munition: A piece of ordnance that contains dozens or hundreds of small explosives and is fired by ground-based howitzers or rocket launchers.
Bomblet (also called submunition or grenade): A small explosive packed inside cluster bombs and cluster munitions. Roughly the size and shape of a soft-drink can, tennis ball or D battery, bomblets are designed to explode on impact and spray an area with shrapnel.
Dud: A cluster bomblet that fails to explode on impact.
The deadly objects were cluster bomblets, small explosives packed by the dozens or hundreds into bombs, rockets or artillery shells known as cluster weapons. When these weapons were fired on Baghdad on April 7, many of the bomblets failed to explode on impact. They were picked up or stumbled on by their victims.
The four who died in the al-Dora neighborhood that day lived a few blocks from al-Qaisi's house. Rashid Majid, 58, who was nearsighted, stepped on an unexploded bomblet around the corner from his home. The explosion ripped his legs off. As he lay bleeding in the street, another bomblet exploded a few yards away, instantly killing three young men, including two of Majid's sons ? Arkan, 33, and Ghasan, 28. "My sons! My sons!" Majid called out. He died a few hours later.
The deaths occurred because the world's most modern military, one determined to minimize civilian casualties, went to war with stockpiles of weapons known to endanger civilians and its own soldiers. The weapons claimed victims in the initial explosions and continued to kill afterward, as Iraqis and U.S. forces accidentally detonated bomblets lying around like small land mines.
A four-month examination by USA TODAY of how cluster bombs were used in the Iraq war found dozens of deaths that were unintended but predictable. Although U.S. forces sought to limit what they call "collateral damage" in the Iraq campaign, they defied international criticism and used nearly 10,800 cluster weapons; their British allies used almost 2,200.
The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery. They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation. One anti-war group calculates that cluster weapons killed as many as 372 Iraqi civilians. The numbers are impossible to verify: Iraqi hospital records are incomplete, and many Iraqi families buried their dead without reporting their deaths.
In the most comprehensive report on the use of cluster weapons in Iraq, USA TODAY visited Iraqi neighborhoods and interviewed dozens of Iraqi families, U.S. troops, teams clearing unexploded ordnance in Iraq, military analysts and humanitarian groups. The findings:
? The Pentagon presented a misleading picture during the war of the extent to which cluster weapons were being used and of the civilian casualties they were causing. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on April 25, six days before President Bush declared major combat operations over, that the United States had used 1,500 cluster weapons and caused one civilian casualty. It turns out he was referring only to cluster weapons dropped from the air, not those fired by U.S. ground forces.
In fact, the United States used 10,782 cluster weapons, according to the declassified executive summary of a report compiled by U.S. Central Command, which oversaw military operations in Iraq. Centcom sent the figures to the Joint Chiefs in response to queries from USA TODAY and others, but details of the report remain secret.
U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas. These strikes, from late March to early April, killed dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Forty civilians were killed in one neighborhood in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, say residents and Saad Khazal al-Faluji, a surgeon at Hillah General Hospital who tracked casualties.
The attacks also left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets, known as duds, that continued to kill and injure Iraqi civilians weeks after the fighting stopped. U.S. officials say they sought to limit civilian casualties by trying to avoid using cluster munitions. But often alternative weapons were not available or would not have been as effective during the invasion.
? Unexploded U.S. cluster bomblets remain a threat to U.S. forces in Iraq. They have killed or injured at least eight U.S. troops.
? The U.S. Air Force, criticized for using cluster bombs that killed civilians during the wars in Vietnam, Kosovo and Afghanistan, has improved its cluster bombs. But U.S. ground forces relied on cluster munitions known to cause a high number of civilian casualties.
The Air Force, responding to the criticism, began working on safer cluster bombs in the mid-1990s and started using them in Afghanistan. But the Army started a program to install self-destruct fuses in existing cluster bomblets only after former Defense Secretary William Cohen called in January 2001 for dud rates of no more than 1% after 2005. The safer bomblets won't be available for at least two years. During the war in Iraq, U.S. ground forces dipped into stockpiles of more than 740 million cluster bomblets, all with a history of high dud rates.
Senior Army officials in Washington would not answer questions about the Army's use of cluster weapons in Iraq. Maj. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said such weapons are effective "against enemy troop formations and light-skinned vehicles" and are used only after "a deliberate decision-making process."
Why cluster bombs are deadly
Cluster bombs have been controversial since they killed thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian civilians during and after the Vietnam War. They have since been used by armies around the world, including Russian forces in Chechnya and Sudanese government troops fighting rebels in a long-running civil war. But their use in urban areas of Iraq has given new momentum to a movement to restrict the use of cluster bombs.
Last month, dozens of activist groups hoping to duplicate the success of the campaign to ban land mines formed a coalition aimed at getting a worldwide moratorium on cluster weapons. After seeing the toll the weapons took on Iraqi civilians and their own forces, even some U.S. soldiers have misgivings about using cluster weapons, at least in urban areas.
As the war in Iraq approached, humanitarian groups warned the Pentagon against using cluster weapons, especially in urban areas. New York-based Human Rights Watch predicted on March 18, a day before the war began with an airstrike in Baghdad: "The use of cluster munitions in Iraq will result in grave dangers to civilians and friendly combatants." Cluster weapons are especially dangerous to civilians because they spray wide areas with hundreds of bomblets. Most are unguided "dumb" weapons, so they can miss their target, and many of the bomblets don't explode immediately.
The U.S. military was aware of the threat cluster munitions posed and was determined to minimize them. Col. Lyle Cayce, an Army judge advocate general (JAG), led a team of 14 lawyers providing advice on the battlefield to the 3rd Infantry Division on the use of cluster munitions, as well as other weapons, during its 21-day, 450-mile drive north from Kuwait to Baghdad. The goal was to ensure that U.S. forces complied with international humanitarian law, enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. "No other army in the world does that," Cayce says. "We value the rule of law."
The Geneva Conventions hold that when choosing which targets to hit and which weapons to use, armies must make sure they do not "cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering" and ensure that the harm to civilians does not outweigh the military advantages.
U.S. forces relied on sophisticated radar to pinpoint the sources of Iraqi fire, then cross-checked them against a computerized list of about 10,000 sensitive sites, such as mosques and schools. Cayce and the other lawyers looked at potential targets and advised U.S. commanders whether the military benefits of using specific weapons against those targets justified the risks to civilians.
Cayce gave advice 512 times during the war, usually in cases involving cluster munitions. Most involved sites outside populated areas. Cayce estimates he dealt with only 25 to 30 "controversial missions." For example: He approved a strike against an Iraqi artillery battery in a soccer field next to a mosque because it was firing on the 3rd Infantry Division's artillery headquarters.
The choices could be agonizing. He says he asked himself, "How many Americans do I have to let get killed before I take out that (Iraqi) weapons system?" Ten to 15 times, Cayce advised commanders against firing on a target; they never overruled him. Five times, in fact, they decided against using cluster munitions even after he gave them the go-ahead because they believed the risk to civilians was too great. "We didn't just shoot there willy-nilly," he says. "It was the enemy who was putting his civilians at risk. ... They put their artillery right in town. Now who's at fault there?"
Rather than call upon their artillery to hit a target with cluster munitions, U.S. ground forces preferred either to use other weapons, such as M-16 rifles or tank rounds, or to summon the Air Force to hit Iraqi targets from the sky with precision bombs. "Cluster munitions were the last choice, not the first," Cayce says.
But aircraft frequently were unavailable. Sometimes the weather was bad or sandstorms were swirling. Sometimes Air Force pilots insisted on seeing targets instead of relying on radar readouts. The cluster munitions, especially M26 rockets fired by a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), had greater range than other weapons and were more reliable in bad weather.
Commanders also thought an MLRS was better at returning fire and killing the enemy. "MLRS is ideal for counterfire," says Col. Ted Janosko, artillery commander for the Army's V Corps. In fighting on March 31 around Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. forces came under heavy artillery fire from the Iraqis. "We used (MLRS) rockets to fire back," Janosko says. "As soon as we started using rockets, guess what? We never heard from that unit again. I'm not going to say we killed them all ... but believe me, they did not fire again from that position."
The 3rd Infantry Division also used MLRS frequently. The rockets can go more than 20 miles, and they spray a wider area than other weapons. The 3rd Infantry fired 794 MLRS rockets during the Iraq war, according to an assessment by two high-ranking division artillery officers in the U.S. Army journal Field Artillery, published at Fort Sill, Okla.
As they raced north from Kuwait toward Baghdad in late March and early April, U.S. forces fired rockets and artillery shells loaded with bomblets into Iraqi troop and artillery positions in Hillah, in Baghdad and in other cities. U.S. aircraft sometimes dropped cluster bombs as well.
Just before U.S. forces' "thunder run" into Baghdad on April 7, the 3rd Infantry Division fired 24 MLRS cluster rockets into Iraqi positions at an important intersection in the capital. The damage assessment, recounted in the Field Artillery article: "There's nothing left but burning trucks and body parts."
The U.S. Air Force used new, improved cluster bombs in Iraq that pose fewer dangers to civilians. But U.S. ground forces used old cluster munitions with a history of leaving unexploded bomblets (duds) that can detonate any time after they are deployed, causing civilian casualties.
"The bulk of civilian casualties caused by cluster munitions (in Iraq) appear to have resulted from ground-launched munitions rather than by aircraft," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., an advocate on behalf of civilian war victims, recently wrote Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Defense Department began to review its use of cluster submunitions after the 1991 Gulf War, when unexploded cluster munitions killed 22 U.S. troops and injured 58.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the Air Force outfitted some cluster bombs with fins and a navigation system that adjusts for the wind. The new cluster bombs land within 70 feet of a target, compared with 700 or 800 feet in some cases for the models they replaced, Air Force Col. James Knox says. The CBU-105 (CBU stands for cluster bomb unit) carries 40 "skeet" bomblets. These "smart" bomblets are designed to self-destruct if they do not detect a valid target and deactivate within minutes if they hit the ground and do not explode.
In Iraq, the Air Force also tried out two new cluster bombs. Each carried thousands of darts instead of bomblets; the darts can kill and destroy targets. But there is no dud problem because they don't explode.
U.S. ground forces won't get improved cluster bombs until at least 2005. So in Iraq, they used cluster bomblets with dud rates well above the 1% the Pentagon set as its goal in 2001.
"As far as I can tell, it's an Army problem, not an Air Force problem," says John Pike, director of the non-partisan defense think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
The Army's new version of the multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) warhead is supposed to have nearly twice the range (37 miles vs. 20) of existing rockets. It also would land within 10 yards of a target compared to within 120 yards. A global positioning system would improve the rockets' accuracy to contain bomblets to target areas. Tests are scheduled for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, 2005.
Self-destruct fuses for submunitions were tested last summer at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in an effort to eliminate duds. The Army is adding self-destruct fuses to M42 and M46 bomblets fired by 155 mm artillery.
- By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY
Iraqis ? and U.S. troops ? stumble across bomblets
No civilians in Iraq endured as much "steel rain" from U.S. cluster munitions as the impoverished squatters who live in the Nader neighborhood of Hillah, a city of 650,000 near the ruins of ancient Babylon. In Nader, stone houses are packed close together, roads are unpaved, raw sewage runs stinking in ditches and livestock wander aimlessly amid trash.
Town hit hard by 'steel rain' Residents, many of whom opposed Saddam Hussein and welcomed the U.S. decision to topple him, say there was no resistance in Nader, just Iraqi troops fleeing north through the area toward Baghdad. But U.S. radar reports showed Iraqi guns firing from Hillah, and anti-aircraft guns were located in a Nader-area schoolyard.
The cluster attack began mid-morning on March 31.
"I wish they'd shelled with regular artillery, not with those bloody cluster bombs," says retired civil servant Ali Selman al-Isawi, whose son, Wisam, 30, was killed that day. "Regular shells would hit only one spot, not every place just like a rain of death." Al-Isawi, 58, took six bodies to the morgue in his car.
When the bombing started, Abdul Jewad al-Timimi, 44, a disabled veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, decided to gather his wife and six children and clear out of Nader. He hoped to catch a taxi on a main road and get to his parents' house, 3 miles away.
It was the wrong decision. Exposed on open ground, al-Timimi and his family were caught in a storm of falling bomblets. "We had no place for shelter," he says. "We were an easy target for the cluster bombs. It was just like land mines exploding everywhere."
They stopped near a refuse-filled canal. "I heard only the explosion," al-Timimi says. "I caught two of the kids with my hand. But they were thrown backward, and I was thrown into the canal. My wife was thrown into a wall nearby. The baby was in her arms. The six children immediately were dead." Al-Timimi and his wife were injured.
The scenes from Nader that day, including footage of a baby torn in half, were so gruesome that Westerntelevision networks refused to air them. The dead child, 2 months old, was Jacob al-Timimi.
"My son," al-Timimi says. "I could not talk at that time. But I wished that the person who started this war, whether Iraqi or American, could be brought before me so I could kill him six times or kill six of those close to him. I still feel that way."
Iraq Body Count, an anti-war group that has been compiling a database of civilian casualties from media reports, attributes 200 to 372 Iraqi civilian deaths to cluster bombs and munitions. That doesn't include 78 to 201 civilians who died in fighting in and around Hillah; many of them were killed by cluster munitions, Iraq Body Count says, but it doesn't know how many.
Bitterness in Baghdad
In Baghdad neighborhoods such as al-Dora, al-Furat and al-Hurriyah, the evidence of cluster-munition attacks is obvious. Holes the size of golf balls still riddle dust-colored stone walls around homes. Metal gates are pinged and punctured. Windows are shattered. Shrapnel from cluster bomblets has ripped into rooftop water tanks and torn through walls.
Many Iraqis are bitter that their neighborhoods were chosen for attacks by U.S. cluster munitions. That anger has hurt efforts to convince Iraqis that U.S. troops came as liberators, not occupiers.
Baghdad was hit particularly hard in late March and early April. Cluster munitions landed in north Baghdad's al-Hurriyah neighborhood on April 8, apparently aimed at anti-aircraft batteries in a nearby park. "The whole street went black," recalls Mohammed Mustafa al-Bayati, 42, a sergeant in the Iraqi army. Al-Bayati's brother Maher, 33, was mentally disabled. He became disoriented by the explosions and smoke. Maher staggered into an intersection, where a bomblet got him. He died after 12 days in a hospital. Mohammed says he found 85 metal fragments in his brother's body. "I counted them one by one," he says. Their father died a week later. Mohammed believes he died of grief.
A few blocks away in al-Hurriyah, a submunition exploded in the courtyard of the home of Bashir Abdul al-Zaidi, 32 the same day. Shrapnel pierced his neck and abdomen. He crawled into the kitchen. Family members found him by following the trail of blood. He died on the way to a hospital.
Before the attack, al-Zaidi's older brother had a dream in which their dead father returned to remove a date palm tree from the garden. Asked why he was taking it, the father just said: "I need it." Now, the family understands the dream. "We realized it meant that someone was going to join their father in eternal life," says their mother, Telba Gutheb, 60. "It was Bashir."
The cluster-bomb attack left hundreds of duds in al-Furat, a poor, densely packed Baghdad neighborhood of narrow streets and low, sparsely furnished houses with modest gardens.
"This neighborhood became a no-man's land," says Sheik Abul Amir Hussein al-Amir, 40, a local political leader. "You couldn't take a car out unless someone walked ahead to lead you."
Ten days after the attack, Tareq al-Lami, 35, discovered several unexploded cluster bomblets inside his family's house in al-Furat. He carried them with a pile of trash to a vacant lot down the street. His relatives don't know exactly what happened. They heard an explosion and found him dead.
Children were particularly vulnerable. About a week after the cluster attack on Hillah, Mahmoud Medhi al-Jabouri, 15, was wandering the Nader neighborhood's trash-filled streets with his brother Salem, 13. Mahmoud either picked up a dud cluster bomblet or stumbled across one concealed by refuse. There was an explosion, and Mahmoud was killed. "The bomb tore away his face," says his father, Mehdi Tali al-Jabouri, 53. Salem spent three days in a hospital with leg injuries; he has recovered.
Duds continued to turn up in gardens, trees and fields months after the military campaign ended. Al-Furat resident Adel Khalil al-Taie, 35, found one on his roof when he went up to install a satellite dish in July. It was an irony he relished: The U.S. campaign to topple Saddam Hussein gave him the freedom to put up a previously forbidden satellite dish but left a deadly explosive on his roof.
Sa'ad al-Shawk, 51, lost his wheat harvest to cluster munitions. His family's field in Yusifiyah, which is south of Baghdad, is filled with unexploded cluster bomblets. A mine-clearance team that works for the U.S. State Department took a look at the field of waist-high stalks and decided it was too dangerous to clear.
Dangers for U.S. troops
The abundance of unexploded submunitions also left a dangerous mess for U.S. soldiers advancing into Baghdad.
Troops from the 101st Airborne found themselves in Baghdad's al-Jihad neighborhood in mid-April, contending with hundreds of unexploded M42 cluster bomblets. "There were M42s all around the houses," says Maj. Mike Getchell, 37, of Bridgewater, Mass., executive officer of the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade. During the three weeks the 101st troops patrolled al-Jihad, they destroyed an average of 100 M42s every day.
On April 19, Sgt. Troy Jenkins, 25, a 6-foot-7 paratrooper from Repton, Ala., was bringing up the rear of a patrol through the streets of al-Jihad. The streets were packed with people celebrating a festival. Suddenly, a little girl emerged from the crowd, carrying what turned out to be an M42 cluster bomblet. She tried to hand it to Jenkins. No one in the patrol knows exactly what happened next. But the bomblet went off, and the little girl, Jenkins and three other soldiers went down.
The little girl died after her family took her to a hospital. Jenkins was evacuated for medical treatment, first to Kuwait and then to Germany, where he died after losing his left leg. He left behind a wife and two sons, ages 4 and 2. The three other soldiers recovered.
Cluster munitions also may have claimed the life of Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez del Solar, 20. The Marine scout from Escondido, Calif., died March 27 after stepping on some type of unexploded ordnance while on reconnaissance patrol outside Baghdad. A Marine investigation concluded that the "origin of the ordnance is unknown and really impossible to determine," says First Lt. Eric Knapp, spokesman for the 1st Marine Division in Camp Pendleton, Calif.
But the dead Marine's father, Fernando Suarez del Solar, 47, has a different account. He says he was contacted by one of his son's friends, who said the Army dropped cluster weapons on March 26 and not all of the submunitions exploded.
"The next day, on the 27th, my son's company received the order for advance and my son was a scout, so he advanced ahead of the others without information that there were unexploded bombs. ... The scout is looking for the enemy, so his eyes are on the horizon, so he was not looking down toward the ground. And he stepped on a bomb."
Fernando Suarez, a former print shop worker who is now a full-time anti-war activist, is seeking an official explanation for his son's death. He has angry words for President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "They say that America has the best weapons and the best technology and the best army. Well, this is not the best technology when they drop bombs that don't explode, and then they don't tell their own military where the bombs are. The best army would make that information available."
Sgt. 1st Class Rick Johanningsmeier, 34, of Martinsville, Ind., was in the same Army unit as Sgt. Jenkins. He saw four more U.S. troops injured when a dud bomblet exploded near the Baghdad airport. "These things are wicked. They're evil," Johanningsmeier says.
In their Field Artillery article, Army Col. Thomas Torrance, who commanded the 3rd Infantry Division's artillery in Iraq, and Lt. Col. Noel Nicolle praise the MLRS cluster munitions, calling them "the munition of choice for killing tanks and personnel in the open." They also note the weapon's major drawback: the dud rate.
"The duds ... littered the battlefield and created a hazard to the local populace," they write. "We need to develop a bomblet for cannons and MLRS that self-destructs or re-engineer the round to significantly reduce the dud rate."
To reduce casualties from dud bomblets, the military tried to keep track of where it fired cluster munitions. U.S. military and State Department teams are working to clear unexploded bomblets in Iraq. The U.S. military also has tried to warn Iraqis about the dangers of unexploded submunitions. U.S. forces have addressed schools and town councils and put up educational posters.
Cayce, the Army lawyer, believes U.S. forces acted responsibly. Even so, he says: "Ethically and morally, we need to find alternatives to cluster weapons in cities."
Contributing: Valerie Alvord in Escondido, Calif.; Steven Komarow in Baghdad, Dave Moniz in Washington, D.C., and Mark Memmott
Remember visiting some hill positions near the now disputed Cheeba area of Southern lebanon during 1990. some of the plots around those positions were dotted with duds from CBU's dropped by Israeli aircraft during the 82 invasion. Small deadly "golf balls" that could still go off if disturbed that many years later, and wouldn't surprise me if there's still a lot of them left around upon that plateau.
The Norbatt engineers had managed to disarm some of them, for use as demonstration objects, yet generaly I think rather prefered to blow them up on site rather than try to disarm them.
Especialy in areas with soft soil, like cultivated plots, those CBU duds are a pain as they tend to "dig down" over time.