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The San Francisco Chronicle December 20, 2002

Global pressure on U.S. against land mines; Bush may use them in Iraq

By Edward Epstein

Reports that the Pentagon might use land mines designed to maim or kill enemy soldiers in an invasion of Iraq have stirred anew the debate over the U.S. refusal to sign an international treaty banning the use of such mines.

Defense Department records show that the U.S. military has stockpiled anti-personnel mines in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The Pentagon won't comment on whether it plans to use the mines in a possible attack on Iraq, which could come this winter.

But the last time American forces used anti-personnel land mines was in the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraq, when about 118,000 were planted to protect U.S. troops. Since then, 146 countries, but not the United States, have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. The United States says it needs the mines to defend South Korea until an effective alternative can be found. In 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered that U.S. forces phase out their use of the mines by 2003, except in Korea. However, President Bush undertook a study of that order, which still hasn't been completed.

Clinton said the United States would sign the treaty by 2006 if new defensive technologies could be found to protect American soldiers in heavily armed places such as the 150-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide Korean demilitarized zone.

Groups that have been lobbying for the United States to comply with the treaty are pushing Bush not to use the anti-personnel mines in Iraq. Mines designed to protect against tanks or other armored vehicles are not banned under the treaty.

"The deployment of anti-personnel landmines would fly in the face of a worldwide effort to ban the use of weapons that often cause more damage to civilians after the battle than to opposing forces during the conflict," wrote Refugees International President Kenneth Bacon in a letter this week to Bush.

Bacon, who was Pentagon spokesman in the Clinton administration, said use of the mines could turn world opinion against the United States and make it harder to rehabilitate Iraq after a war because mine-clearing is an expensive and dangerous process. About 26,000 people are still killed or injured each year by old mines strewn on old battlefields in countries such as Angola, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Parts of Iraq are still plagued by the mines left over from the war, mostly those sown by Iraq itself.

But unlike the mines once used, the new ones in the U.S. arsenal are so-called "smart mines." These devices, generally spread from airplanes, are self-destructing or self-disarming. They generally have three armed settings, for four hours, 48 hours or 15 days, and are 99.99 percent effective, according to Pentagon statements included in a recent General Accounting Office report.

The report by the GAO, an independent government investigating office, said that some American commanders were reluctant to use anti-personnel mines in the Gulf War. They feared casualties to their own troops and said using the mines limited their forces' mobility.

The GAO also said commanders were frustrated by malfunctioning mines, which could create "dudfields" where no one wanted to go and which presented a long-term hazard.

But many military analysts say the new mines offer a reason for their continued use. "U.S. mine warfare has undergone a remarkable transition in the last 30 years," according to an analysis from GlobalSecurity.org. It said the "smart" mines "lose the ability to inflict casualties once their military utility on the battlefield is gone."

Even newer mines are in the works, including ones that would be electronically directed to turn themselves on and off and would be able to sense the direction from which a threat is coming.

But anti-mine campaigners have several objections to the new mines. They say they still pose a hazard to civilians, who are sometimes caught in battles and have to move through mine-laced land. They also question the claim that almost all the mines will work as designed and say that if the United States uses the "smart" mines, countries like Iraq, which also hasn't signed the treaty, will be encouraged to continue using their old mines in reaction.

No matter what the United States does in a prospective war with Iraq, Baghdad's action is probably already planned, said Rachel Stohl, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Pentagon watchdog group in Washington.

"Any U.S. operations in Iraq will have to contend with not only old mines, but those already in the ground and any new mines which are laid," she said, adding that it is impossible to quantify Iraq's stockpile of mines or its ability to produce them on its own.

Copyright 2002 The San Francisco Chronicle