U.S. ground forces in Iraq are using cluster munitions with a very high failure rate, creating immediate and long-term dangers for civilians and friendly soldiers, Human Rights Watch reported today.
While use of the weapon has not yet been confirmed by official U.S. military sources, it is evident from television images and stories from reporters embedded with U.S. units that U.S. forces are using artillery projectiles and rockets containing large numbers of submunitions, or cluster munitions. When these submunitions fail to explode on impact as designed, they become hazardous explosive "duds"—functioning like volatile, indiscriminate antipersonnel landmines.
Two U.S. Marines were killed in separate incidents on March 27 and 28 after stepping on unexploded cluster munitions delivered by artillery in southern Iraq.
"The United States should not be using these weapons," said Steve Goose, executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. "Iraqi civilians will be paying the price with their lives and limbs for many years."
Human Rights Watch has identified footage of the use of the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) by artillery units of the 3rd Infantry Division. This is a system that currently uses only submunition payloads. The 1st Battalion of the 39th Field Artillery Regiment of the division deploys at least eighteen MLRS launch units.
The standard M26 warhead for the MLRS contains 644 M77 individual submunitions (also called dual-purpose grenades). According to a Department of Defense report submitted to the U.S. Congress in February 2000, these submunitions have a failure rate of 16 percent. Thus, the typical volley of twelve MLRS rockets would likely result in more than 1,200 dud submunitions scattered randomly in a 120,000 to 240,000 square meter impact area.
The Washington Post reported on March 29 that the U.S. MLRS fired eighteen Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) against suspected air defense sites in support of a helicopter attack by units of the 101st Airborne Division on March 28. The payload of an ATACMS is 300 or 950 M74 submunitions with a reported failure rate of two percent.
Human Rights Watch has also seen video of U.S. Marine artillery units supporting the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion using 155mm artillery firing projectiles at Iraqi positions; an embedded reporter described "hundreds of grenades" being fired at the Iraqis. These were apparently the M483A1 and M864 projectiles whose submunitions (dual-purpose grenades) have a 14 percent dud rate. The M483A1 projectile contains eighty-eight dual-purpose grenades, and the M864 projectile contains seventy-two dual-purpose grenades.
It is not clear whether air-dropped cluster bombs have been used in the air campaign. Iraqi officials have repeatedly alleged use of cluster bombs by U.S. and U.K. aircraft, but these reports have not been confirmed. U.S. air forces used cluster bombs, notably the CBU-87 Combined Effects Munition, extensively in the first Gulf War in 1991, in Yugoslavia/Kosovo in 1999 and in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
At least eighty U.S. casualties during the 1991 Gulf War were attributed to cluster munition duds. More than 4,000 civilians were killed or injured by cluster munition duds after the end of the war.
Human Rights Watch has called for a global moratorium on use of cluster munitions until the humanitarian problems caused by the weapons are addressed. Short of that commitment, Human Rights Watch has urged the United States and others that may deploy cluster munitions in Iraq to prohibit the use of any cluster munitions in attacks on or near populated areas and to suspend use of cluster munitions that have been tested and identified as producing high dud rates. If cluster munitions are used, it is crucial that the U.S. record, report, track, and mark known or suspected cluster munition strike areas and preserve the information so it can be disseminated quickly in clearance efforts.
"The United States must rapidly provide extensive information and warnings to civilian populations to protect them from cluster munition duds," said Goose. "The United States now bears a special responsibility to help clear these deadly remnants of war as quickly as possible."
Vast numbers of cluster munition duds will complicate the reconstruction of Iraq as well as endangering civilians and peacekeepers, Goose said.