Cluster Munitions, ‘Decapitation’ Attacks Condemned
December 13, 2003
Coalition forces generally tried to avoid killing Iraqis who weren’t taking part in combat. But the deaths of hundreds of civilians still could have been prevented.
Kenneth Roth Executive director of Human Rights Watch

Hundreds of civilian deaths in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq could have been prevented by abandoning two misguided military tactics, Human Rights Watch said in a comprehensive new report released today.

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 in March and April, Human Rights Watch said. U.S. and British forces used almost 13,000 cluster munitions, containing nearly 2 million submunitions, that killed or wounded more than 1,000 civilians.

Meanwhile, 50 strikes on top Iraqi leaders failed to kill any of the intended targets, but instead killed dozens of civilians, the Human Rights Watch report revealed. The U.S. “decapitation” strategy relied on intercepts of senior Iraqi leaders´ satellite phone calls along with corroborating intelligence that proved inadequate. As a result, the U.S. military could only locate targets within a 100-meter radius – clearly inadequate precision in civilian neighborhoods.

“Coalition forces generally tried to avoid killing Iraqis who weren´t taking part in combat,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “But the deaths of hundreds of civilians still could have been prevented.”

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, does not outlaw all civilian casualties in wartime. But armed forces are obliged to take all feasible precautions for avoiding civilian losses, and to refrain from attacks that are indiscriminate or where the expected civilian harm exceeds the military gain. The term “casualty” refers to both dead and wounded.

The 147-page report, “Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq,” also examines violations of international humanitarian law by Iraqi forces, including use of human shields, abuse of the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, use of antipersonnel landmines, and placement of military objects in mosques and hospitals. The Iraqi military´s practice of wearing civilian clothes also eroded the distinction between combatants and civilians.

The Human Rights Watch report also criticizes U.S. air strikes on electrical and media facilities. U.S. and British forces did not secure large caches of weapons and ammunition abandoned by Iraqi forces, and the ready availability of these explosives also led to dozens of civilian casualties. Additional information about British conduct of the Iraq war can be found here.

To preserve its neutrality in assessing adherence to the laws of war in the Iraq conflict, Human Rights Watch did not take a position on whether the war itself was justified or legal.

Human Rights Watch sent a team of researchers to Iraq between April 29 and June 1 to investigate civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. The team focused on the main areas of fighting in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. Team members visited 10 cities and conducted more than 200 interviews with victims and their families, Iraqi doctors, U.S. and British military personnel, and others.

The researchers inspected dozens of bombsites, as well as fields and neighborhoods littered with unexploded cluster submunitions. They evaluated ballistics evidence and hospital records. The researchers also obtained U.S. Department of Defense data that enabled them to pinpoint the locations of cluster-munition strikes.

Human Rights Watch estimates that cluster munitions killed or injured more than 1,000 civilians, while “decapitation” strikes killed dozens. The total number of civilians killed in the war is much higher, since it would include people who died as a result of collateral damage from small-arms fire and other factors. Human Rights Watch did not attempt to ascertain an exact number of civilian deaths in the war.

“Every death of a civilian in wartime is a terrible tragedy,” said Roth. “But focusing on the exact number of deaths misses the point. The point is that the U.S. military should not have been using these methods of warfare.”

In a single day, U.S. cluster-munition attacks in Hilla on March 31 killed at least 33 civilians and injured 109. A hospital director in the southern Iraqi city told Human Rights Watch that cluster munitions caused 90 percent of the civilian injuries that his hospital treated during the war. Human Rights Watch obtained hospital records from Hilla, Najaf and Nasariya indicating 2,279 civilian casualties in March and April, including 678 dead and 1,601 injured.

On April 7 a “decapitation” attack, apparently targeting Saddam Hussein on the basis of a satellite phone intercept, killed 18 civilians and destroyed three homes in the Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad. Residents said there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein or any members of the Iraqi government had been there.

“The decapitation strategy was an utter failure on military grounds, since it didn´t kill a single Iraqi leader in 50 attempts,” said Roth. “But it also failed on human rights grounds. It´s no good using a precise weapon if the target hasn´t been located precisely.”

In its research on previous U.S. armed conflicts, including the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia (http://www.hrw.org/europe/fry.php) and the war in Afghanistan (http://www.hrw.org/asia/afghanistan.php), Human Rights Watch found that the U.S. Air Force was progressively using fewer cluster bombs in populated areas. While the U.S. Air Force continued this trend in Iraq, the U.S. Army launched tens of thousands of cluster submunitions in populated areas.

U.S. Central Command reported that its forces used 10,782 cluster munitions overall, with ground forces launching the vast majority. British forces used an additional 70 air-launched and 2,100 ground-launched cluster munitions. “Dud” submunitions, which fail to explode immediately, may kill or maim civilians long after the conflict has ended. The U.S. and British cluster munitions together contained nearly 2 million submunitions.

“The way cluster munitions were used in Iraq represents a big step backwards for the U.S. military,” said Roth. “U.S. ground forces need to learn the lesson that the air force seems to have adopted: cluster munitions cannot be used in populated areas without huge loss of civilian life.”

The Human Rights Watch report contains numerous maps, satellite images and photographs.