Cluster Bombs, Air Strikes Killed Hundreds in Iraq
by Jim Lobe
December 12, 2003

Hundreds of civilians were killed by Coalition cluster bombs and air strikes designed to "decapitate" the Iraqi leadership, according to a new report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which said the high cost in civilian casualties caused by the two tactics may have violated the laws of war.

The report, which found that U.S.-led Coalition forces in Iraq generally tried to comply with international humanitarian law, nonetheless concluded that U.S. ground forces were too eager to use cluster munitions in populated areas, and that 50 "decapitation" attacks failed to hit a single one of their targets, but caused dozens of civilian deaths and injuries.

"Coalition forces generally tried to avoid killing Iraqis who weren't taking part in combat," said Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director. "But the deaths of hundreds of civilians could have been prevented."

The 147-page report, "Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq," also details numerous violations of international humanitarian law by Iraqi forces, including their use of human shields, the abuse of Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, the use of antipersonnel landmines, and the deployment of weapons and other military equipment in mosques, hospitals and archaeological and cultural sites.

In many cases, the Iraqi military failed to take adequate precautions to protect civilians from military operations, and its practice of donning civilian clothes necessarily put other civilians at risk.

International humanitarian law does not outlaw all civilian casualties in wartime, but it requires armed forces to take all feasible precautions for avoiding harm to civilians. It also requires them to refrain from attacks that are indiscriminate or where the anticipated harm to civilians exceeds the possible military gain.

The report is based primarily on the research of three experts who conducted battle damage assessments (BDA) missions to the main areas of fighting in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys where civilian deaths had been reported and other sites where cluster bombs were used, as well as hospital and US military records the delegation was able to obtain. HRW has previously conducted BDA missions to Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

At each of the sites, the team studied the ballistic evidence and interviewed Coalition soldiers, residents, and victims for their accounts of what took place. Because Iraqi soldiers dispersed during the war, however, HRW said it proved virtually impossible to find any who took part in specific battles.

The team did not try to estimate the total number of civilian deaths that resulted from hostilities during the war. The Associated Press (AP) estimated after canvassing 60 of Iraq's 124 hospitals immediately after the war that well over 3,420 civilians were killed, while the Los Angeles Times concluded that at least 1,700 civilians were killed and more than 8,000 injured in Baghdad after it surveyed 27 hospitals there.

London-based Medact, the British affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, concluded in a study released last month that a total of between 5,700 and 7,356 civilians were killed between Mar. 20 and May 1 as a result of hostilities. AP also reported Wednesday that an effort by the Iraqi health ministry to count the total number of casualties was suspended this week, allegedly on orders from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

The report concluded that the use of cluster weapons, particularly by US and British ground forces, caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the Coalition's military campaign in March and April. US and British forces together used almost 13,000 cluster munitions, containing a total of nearly two million submunitions, or bomblets, that killed or wounded more than 1,000 civilians.

Most of the civilian casualties resulting from the air war occurred during a total of 50 US attacks that targeted the Iraqi leadership, including two high-profile attacks against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein himself, one of which killed 18 civilians and destroyed three homes in the Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad.

HRW found that the military's "decapitation" strategy relied almost exclusively on intercepts of satellite phones backed up by "inadequate" corroborating intelligence. Thuraya satellite phones used by the leadership provide geo-coordinates that are accurate to within only a 100-meter radius, and thus US intelligence could not determine the origin of a call with a high degree of accuracy, particularly considering that population density of the targeted areas.

"The decapitation strategy was an utter failure on military grounds, since it didn't kill a single Iraqi 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," Roth added.

On the other hand, HRW found that Coalition air strikes against pre-planned fixed targets apparently caused few civilian casualties, and the US and British air forces generally avoided civilian infrastructure, although so-called "dual-use" targets that included electrical and media facilities were hit.

The report also praised the relative restraint on the part of the US Air Force in using cluster bombs, noting that the frequency of its use of such weapons has progressively declined from the 1999 Kosovo campaign and the 2001 Afghanistan war.

But US ground forces resorted much more readily to cluster munitions, according to Ross, who said they "need to learn the lesson that the Air Forces seems to have adopted: cluster munitions cannot be used in populated areas without huge loss of civilian life."

In a single day, US cluster-munition attacks in Hilla on Mar. 31 killed at least 33 civilians and injured 109, while the same weapon was implicated in high civilian casualties in Najaf and Nasariya, as well. One hospital director told HRW that cluster munitions caused 90 percent of the civilian injuries that his hospital treated during the war.

Moreover, the Coalition is believed to have left behind many tens of thousands of cluster-munition "duds" – those that did not explode on impact and then become de facto landmines that have already caused dozens of casualties.

The report also took Coalition forces to task for failing to secure vast arsenals of weapons that were abandoned by Iraqi forces during the war. None have been used to mount guerrilla attacks on Coalition forces, but many civilians, including children searching for playthings or scrap metal, have been killed or injured at these sites, the report said.

(Inter Press Service)

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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