The formal war in Iraq has ended, and most of the big guns have fallen silent. Yet the death toll continues to rise, not merely because of the brutality of occupation and the resistance, but because of one of the most heinous, unpredictable weapons of modern war-the cluster bomb.
All over Iraq, unexploded cluster bombs, originally dropped by U.S. troops in populated areas, are still killing and maiming civilians, farm animals, wildlife-any living thing that touches them by accident.
Under Article 85 of the Geneva Conventions, it is a war crime to launch "an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population in the knowledge that such an attack will cause an excessive loss of life or injury to civilians." Under the Hague Conventions, Article 22 and 23, "The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited," and "It is especially forbidden to kill treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army."
A cluster bomb is a 14-foot weapon that weighs about 1,000 pounds. When it explodes it sprays hundreds of smaller bomblets over an area the size of two or three football fields. The bomblets are bright yellow and look like beer cans. And because they look like playthings, thousands of children have been killed by dormant bomblets in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq. Each bomblet sprays flying shards of metal that can tear through a quarter inch of steel.
The failure rate, the unexploded rate, is very high, often around 15 to 20 percent. When bomblets fail to detonate on the first round, they become land mines that explode on simple touch at any time.
Human Rights Watch reports that 1600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians have been killed, many more injured, by explosive duds following the Persian Gulf war.
Under the Geneva Conventions, cluster bombs are criminal weapons because it is impossible to use them in significant numbers without indiscriminate effects.
In the war in Bosnia in 1995, Major General Michael Ryan recognized the inherent danger to civilians and, out of respect for the laws of war, prohibited the use of cluster bombs in the European theatre. According to Air Force reports, "The problem was that the fragmentation pattern was too large to sufficiently limit collateral damage and there was also the further problem of potential unexploded ordinance."
A U.N. clearance expert said that "our experience in Kosovo showed us that children and youths are highly susceptible to the submunitions."
There is a humanitarian crisis in every country where the U.S. dropped cluster bombs-in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Under Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions on Civilians, the Occupying Power has a responsibility to return evacuated personnel to their homes at the end of hostilities-a responsibility which live cluster bombs make impossible to fulfill. Thousands of displaced persons in Afghanistan cannot return to their homes because their farms, houses and villages are replete with unexploded bomblets.
Before the invasion of Iraq, Human Rights Watch called for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs. Human Rights director Steve Close predicted that "Iraqi civilians will be paying the price with their lives and limbs for many years." A U.N. weapons commission described cluster bombs as "weapons of indiscriminate effects."
In defiance of U.N. reports, Air Force studies, and repeated warnings from Human Rights Watch, Rumsfeld reauthorized the expanded use of cluster bombs with full knowledge of their indiscriminate and treacherous results.
The consequences of his war crime, as reported by international journalists and photographers, are appalling.
On April 10th Asia Times described the carnage of U.S. cluster bombs. "All over Baghdad, the city's five main hospitals simply cannot cope with an avalanche of civilian casualties. Doctors can't get to the hospitals because of the bombing. Dr. Osama Saleh-al-Deleimi at the al-Kindi hospital confirms the absolute majority of patients are women and children, victims of...shrapnel and most of all, fragments of cluster bombs. 'They are all civilians, ' he said. 'The International Committee of the Red Cross is in a state of almost desperation...casualties arriving at hospitals at a rate of as many as 100 per hour and at least 100 per day.'"
Anton Antonowicz reported in The Mirror (U.K.) from a hospital in Hillah: "Among the 168 patients I counted, not one was being treated for bullet wounds. All of them, men, women, children, bore the wounds of bomb shrapnel. It peppered their bodies. Blackened the skin. Smashed heads. Tore limbs. A doctor reported that 'All the injuries you see were caused by cluster bombs...The majority of the victims were children who died because they were outside.'"
Reporting from Baghdad March 27th, Doug Johnson wrote: "I'm overwhelmed and tired. For three days now I've concentrated on visiting injured civilians in hospitals and seeing bombed sites. This morning we interviewed an extended family of 25 that had been living in six houses together on one farm just outside of Baghdad. At 6:00 p.m. yesterday, B-52s dropped cluster bombs on their farm destroying all six houses, killing four and severely injuring many others. Even the farm animals were killed. We were told that the yellow cylinders landed in their yard, and when they and the animals crept closer to investigate, the bombs detonated."
During the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld lauded the accuracy of stealth bombers and missiles-a boast met with mockery in the streets of Baghdad. But whatever we think about Rumsfeld's humanitarian missiles, he cannot plead ignorance about the traits and effects of cluster bombs. Ever since the Vietnam catastrophe, from the hospitals of Saigon to the clinics of Afghanistan, into the wailing hospitals of Iraq, doctors have been digging shrapnel out of the maimed bodies of once-playful children all around the world. Cluster bombs were always known for their inaccuracy, their indiscriminate and unpredictable nature.
Regarding the use of cluster bombs, among other war crimes--the use of depleted uranium, "the wanton destruction of cities and towns," collective reprisals against civilians in Operation Hammer--the U.S. media is still silent. Years ago in the midst of France's brutal war in Algeria, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre admonished the French intelligentsia:
"It is not right, my fellow-countrymen, you who know very well all the crimes committed in our name. It's not at all right that you do not breathe a word about them to anyone, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to stand in judgment of yourself. I am willing to believe that at the beginning you did not realize what was happening; later, you doubted whether such things could be true; but now you know, and still you hold your tongues."
Paul Rockwell (email@example.com) is a columnist for In Motion Magazine.