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U.S.: New Landmines for Iraq Raise Fears of Civilian Risk

The U.S. Army plans to deploy a new system of remote-controlled antipersonnel mines in Iraq by May, but the Pentagon has failed to answer crucial questions about the potential harm these mines could pose to innocent civilians, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new mine system, which is called Matrix, allows a soldier with a laptop computer based several kilometers away to detonate Claymore mines remotely via radio signal. Claymore mines normally propel lethal fragments from 40 to 60 meters across a 60-degree arc. However, U.S. Army tests indicate that the actual hazard range for these types of mines can be as high as 300 meters.

The plan to use the Matrix Claymore mine system raises two key unanswered questions in terms of their humanitarian impact. The first is how a soldier will be able to make a positive identification of his target from great distances.

“A faraway blip on a laptop screen is hardly a surefire method of determining if you are about to kill an enemy combatant or an unsuspecting civilian,” said Steve Goose, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division.

The second key humanitarian question is whether the mines could be inadvertently detonated by civilians themselves, rather than a U.S. soldier operating the system. The original technology behind Matrix was designed with a “battlefield override” feature that substituted activation by a victim for detonation by command. Victim-activated Claymore mines are prohibited by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which has been agreed to by 152 nations but not the United States.

“The Pentagon needs to give concrete assurances that innocent civilians can’t accidentally detonate these new Matrix mines,” said Goose. “Otherwise, this system would end up functioning like the old-fashioned antipersonnel mines that more than three-quarters of the world’s nations have banned.”

One year ago, on February 27, 2004, the Bush administration announced the outcome of a lengthy review of U.S. landmine policy, rejecting U.S. accession to the Mine Ban Treaty outright. The new policy reversed a 10-year pledge by the United States to eliminate all antipersonnel landmines. Instead, the Bush administration opted to retain self-destructing and self-deactivating antipersonnel mines indefinitely. It is not known whether Matrix possesses a feature to self-destruct or self-deactivate.

Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns that the new U.S. policy has set the stage for the United States to resume production, trade and use of antipersonnel mines prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty. The U.S. has not used such mines since the 1991 Gulf War, has not exported them since 1992, and has not produced them since 1997.

The Army’s high-tech Stryker Brigade plans to field a total of 25 Matrix systems in Iraq by May, according to an article in the March edition of National Defense Magazine. The mines will reportedly be used primarily to protect bases.

Matrix is a precursor of Spider, another U.S. mine system that will utilize new munitions rather than Claymore mines. So far, the Pentagon has not answered similar humanitarian concerns raised by Human Rights Watch.

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