According to a report in yesterday’s Newsday, a Central Command spokeswoman has anonymously confirmed that U.S. forces have hit urban areas of Baghdad with cluster munitions, stating that they were aimed at Iraqi artillery and missile systems located inside the city.
“U.S. commanders should never use cluster munitions in populated areas,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “These are wholly inappropriate weapons when civilians are around. The reported use of cluster munitions in Baghdad is a serious charge and the Pentagon must respond publicly to it.”
Newsday’s reporter provided Human Rights Watch with a photograph he had taken inside a building in what he described as a clearly residential neighborhood well inside Baghdad. Human Rights Watch identified an unexploded cluster submunition in the photograph from either a ground-based Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) or an artillery projectile. The damage to the surrounding walls and floor were also consistent with a cluster munition strike. Human Rights Watch has previously reported that, according to The Pentagon’s own data, these particular submunitions have an especially high failure rate.
Human Rights Watch believes that the use of cluster munitions in populated areas may violate the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks contained in international humanitarian law. Despite the utility of cluster munitions in achieving certain military objectives, the wide dispersal pattern of their submunitions makes it very difficult to avoid civilians if they are in the area. Moreover, because of their high failure rate, cluster munitions leave large numbers of hazardous, explosive duds to terrorize civilians even after the attack is over.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps may be taking less care to avoid civilian casualties with surface-delivered cluster munitions than the U.S. Air Force with air-delivered cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch conducted detailed analyses of the U.S. Air Force’s use of cluster bombs in the 1999 Yugoslavia war and the 2001-2002 Afghanistan war. In Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force used cluster bombs substantially less often in populated areas than they had in Yugoslavia, and therefore caused far fewer civilian deaths with cluster bombs.
“It seemed that after Yugoslavia, U.S. commanders learned that cluster munitions cannot be safely used in populated areas,” said Roth. “The use of cluster munitions inside Baghdad represents a disturbing step backwards – with deadly consequences.”
It is not yet known if there were civilian casualties at the time of the strike, but Newsday reported on several deaths and injuries to children and others who encountered the explosive duds left by the cluster munitions which failed to detonate on initial impact as designed. The duds function as de facto antipersonnel landmines.
This is the first confirmed instance of U.S. use of cluster munitions in Baghdad or other highly populated areas. There have been many unconfirmed allegations of use of both air-dropped and surface-delivered cluster munitions in urban areas by the United States and the United Kingdom. Most notably, some press accounts attributed the deaths of scores of civilians near the village of Hilla in central Iraq on April 1 to U.S. cluster bombs, but the facts have not been established.
In light of its admission of use of cluster munitions, and the already documented deaths and injuries to children and other non-combatants, Human Rights Watch called on the United States to take responsibility with the utmost urgency for assuring:
- the provision of warnings and risk education to the civilian population;
- the clear demarcation of affected areas in order to effectively exclude civilians;
- the rapid clearance of dangerous cluster munition duds.
“The Pentagon is crowing about the Air Force sparing civilians by using only precision weapons in Baghdad,” said Roth. “But that’s a meaningless achievement if the Army then comes along and indiscriminately batters civilian neighborhoods with cluster munitions.”