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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Newsday April 22, 2003

Clusters of Death

Bomblets wreak havoc long after their initial deployment

By James Rupert

Baghdad - On April 9, as U.S. troops were reaching central Baghdad to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi army units were retreating along the main highway from the city's western edge and Iraqi artillery pieces were parked here and there among the homes on either side of the road.

For perhaps 2 miles along the highway, U.S. forces attacked with cluster bombs, according to several Iraqi eyewitnesses. The canisters broke open in midair, showering many of their explosive bomblets onto the road being used by the retreating Iraqi forces. Many others fell into large suburban neighborhoods like explosive rain, blasting craters and spewing steel shrapnel into homes, schools and civilians north and south of the road.

The cluster bomb attack on the Ghazaliya district appears to be one of the largest and deadliest in a civilian area reported so far in the war. A partial survey by Newsday yesterday among people in many of the affected neighborhoods gathered eyewitness reports of 27 people killed and 54 injured. "But actually, we must be afraid that the real death toll might easily be two or three times this number," said Dr. Hussain Nasser, head of a first aid station at Siddiq Mosque in Ghazaliya.

Some Iraqi eyewitnesses said the cluster bombs were dropped by a B-52 bomber, but a spokesman for the U.S. military's Central Command said it had no record of an air attack at that time. John Pike, a civilian munitions specialist in Washington, examined pictures of the bomblets and said they were U.S. munitions and appeared to be of a type fired from rockets or possibly artillery.

The Defense Department says cluster bombs are essential weapons for use against massed troops, tanks or anti-aircraft defenses. Opponents of the weapons, including the Federation of American Scientists, church groups and human rights organizations, say they should be banned, at least from use in urban environments, because of exactly what happened in Ghazaliya.

From his middle-class home at the eastern end of the bombed zone, Farooq Rubaii watched part of the attack. "It was a large plane, very high, with four trails of smoke" behind, he said. He saw it drop "four or five" dark objects, one of which fell toward Rubaii's home. It "opened up, and spread many smaller bombs," at which point Rubaii stopped watching and dashed into the nearest doorway.

"Just after that, the explosions started, everywhere. Nothing outside could have stayed alive," he said.

Another concentration of bomblets fell in Sector 651, a neighborhood of upscale villas north of the highway.

For residents here and cluster bomb opponents, the weapon's evil is not only in the spillover of bomblets beyond their intended target on April 9. It is also in the way they have continued to kill, nearly two weeks after the attack. Like any explosive weapon, cluster bombs include duds. Especially when landing on softer surfaces - grass, gardens, garbage dumps or pastures - a number of the bomblets fail to explode.

The bomblets in Ghazaliya are what the military calls "combined effect munitions." Each is shaped like a can of shaving cream, but only slightly bigger than a D-cell battery. It can blast through the armor of a tank. The bomb's body, of gray steel, is made to fragment into shrapnel to kill the troops operating the tank or artillery weapon targeted by the bomb.

Walid Hijazi, 20, knew none of this on April 11, when he and relatives went to check on the home of his uncle Mohammed Hijazi in Ghazaliya. Walid and his cousin Seif Hijazi, 17, found the bombs scattered near the house.

"I saw more than 100 of them, all the same," Walid Hijazi said. "We thought they were pieces, maybe from a bomb, but not that they were bombs themselves."

Amid the poverty that typically accompanies war, people's survival instincts often lead to scavenging. Curious about anything of interest or value inside the foreign objects on the ground, the young men took a half-dozen of them back to central Baghdad, where the Hijazi family was sheltering from the war in the apartment of a relative. There, "I checked the thing all over, trying to see how I could open it, but I couldn't," Walid Hijazi said.

With more than 20 people camped in the three-room apartment, seven of Hijazi's family were in the living room the next morning as the bomb sat on the floor near the sofa.

His baby sister, Rawand, was on the floor near the bomb, "but my back was turned," he said, "and I didn't see whether she touched it or not."

When the explosion rocked the house, those who ran in found Rawand with her legs blown away. She died quickly in her father's arms.

Neighbors carried the injured, stunned or unconscious into two cars, which rushed off to local hospitals. Walid and Seif Hijazi were in the car of Seif's father, Mohammed. As they rode, they discovered four of the objects they had gathered in Ghazaliya still on the car's floor. Now they knew what they were.

Panicked, they threw the bombs out of the car windows into empty areas along the street, they said. Each erupted, blasting shrapnel back into the car that smashed its windows, destroyed its tires and wounded Mohammed Hijazi. They had to flag down another car to get to the hospital.

Saturday, five members of the Tamimi family, who had fled their home in another part of the city, were walking on a footpath near the main highway, and Haithem, 7, spotted a bomblet.

"He thought it looked interesting. He picked it up and looked at it," said Haithem's brother Khalid, 23.

Then, as a child will, he threw it down. The explosion killed him and his cousin Nora, 9. Khalid Tamimi and the children's mothers, Amal and Mayasa, all were seriously injured.

In Newsday's partial count of victims in Ghazaliya, seven of the 13 people who were killed or injured by duds after the initial attack were children. That fits a pattern seen in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kuwait and other areas that have suffered cluster bomb attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups.

"The United States should not be using these weapons," Steve Goose, executive director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report. Because dud bomblets effectively turn into land mines, "Iraqi civilians will be paying the price with their lives and limbs for many years."

The indiscriminate way in which cluster bombs kill - both in the initial attack and as volatile duds - leads some critics to question whether they violate the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war. The accords include a requirement that military forces "take all feasible precautions in the choice of ... methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life."

The Pentagon insists it has done that in this war.

"I will tell you that the care which was taken in targeting throughout this campaign, the right munition for the right target, has been unprecedented," said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, responding to a question last week about cluster bomb use.

Suha Jamal doesn't see it that way. She is the aunt of Rawand, the baby killed in the living room.

"No one asks that they prohibit a tank or a gun, because these weapons can be pointed at the person who is an enemy," Jamal said Sunday from her hospital bed. "But Rawand was the enemy of no American. This weapon kills by chance and by attracting the attention of children ... And we have a saying that broken things such as this can't be put back as they were before."

Deadly Duds

Cluster bombs, which unleash hundreds of smaller explosives on large, sprawling targets such as enemy convoys, have proven destructive to civilians as well as to enemy troops.

Cluster bombs can be carried by bombers such as the Air Force's B-52 Stratofortress.

Once dropped, bomb is designed to spin, giving bomblets inside more momentum.

Outer casing splits, scattering bomblets over an area as big as a football field.

Each bomblet inflates parachute-like device to orient itself as it strikes target.

Mechanical and fuse failures can leave about 5 percent of bomblets unexploded but still armed. Their bright, toy-like appearance can attract children - with tragic consequences.

SOURCE: Federation of American Scientists; GlobalSecurity.org; Human Rights Watch; staff reporting

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.