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Iraq: Unexploded Ordnance, Unfired Munitions Kill, Injure Children

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

One month after the cessation of hostilities, unexploded ordnance and unfired munitions continue to take a heavy toll on Iraq's civilian population. Reports say that in northern Iraq, children account for more than half of the casualties recorded in that area since the war officially ended.

Prague, 20 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One week after Baghdad fell into the hands of U.S. troops, at least six civilians were killed and another 10 wounded when a makeshift arms depot exploded in a southern suburb of the Iraqi capital.

The U.S. military accused unknown attackers of firing flares at the open dump, triggering the deadly blast. But angry Baghdad residents blamed American troops for failing to remove live ammunition stocked so close to a populated neighborhood.

The Baghdad blast is only one of many such incidents that have occurred since U.S. troops and their British allies asserted control over Iraq.

Information compiled by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) nongovernmental organization suggests the number of civilians killed or wounded in the country's northern provinces since the war ended, for example, is higher than it was during the conflict between coalition forces and troops loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

HRW estimates, based on research at local hospitals and morgues, ascribe the high civilian tolls to the general lawlessness that followed the collapse of the ruling Ba'ath Party and to the vast dumps of ammunition and components left behind by the routed Iraqi Army.

In the absence of official statistics, information regarding the number of civilians killed or injured by land mines or unexploded ordnance since the end of the conflict remains scarce and should be treated with caution.

Tamara al-Rifai, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told RFE/RL casualty figures among civilians since the beginning of the conflict are just beginning to emerge. "Now that we have a better coverage of the country, we are starting to get some figures. My colleague reports from the ground that since the beginning of the conflict, hospitals and dispensaries in southern Iraq have treated an average 400 to 500 war wounded each. She also says some 80 percent of these cases are orthopedic cases, but we cannot confirm at this stage whether these people were injured by land mines or any other exploding devices," al-Rifai said.

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is a U.K.-based international nongovernmental group that specializes in clearing up war-torn areas affected by land mines and unfired ammunition. MAG says the main hospital in the northern city of Kirkuk reported 52 people killed and 63 others injured in just one week. In a statement posted on its website, the group says the real figures might be much higher since many deaths and injuries are not recorded.

MAG, which has been helping the de facto autonomous administration of Iraqi Kurdistan clear up antipersonnel mines since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, recently moved to Kirkuk and Mosul, the two oil-rich northern cities claimed by Iraqi Kurds, to begin operations there.

MAG information manager Sean Sutton told our correspondent that unexploded ordnance abandoned by Iraqi troops -- sometimes in schools and mosques -- is the greatest danger facing local residents. "The biggest problem is being stockpiles of unexploded ordnance, rockets, mortars, and a whole range of items. They were basically positioned in and around cities. [The Iraqis had] a plan for a protracted war, but as soon as command and control collapsed the soldiers left, and they left these piles of ordnance all around," Sutton said.

"The New York Times" on 1 May quoted doctors in Mosul as saying they were treating three to five children a day wounded by abandoned munitions. In Kirkuk, Kifri, and Jalawlah, medical sources reported more than 150 injuries from munitions since the war in northern Iraq ended, the daily added.

In most conflict-ridden areas across the world, children are the most vulnerable to being injured by land mines, unfired munitions, and unexploded ordnance. Iraq is no exception. Children reportedly account for more than half of the casualties recorded in the northern provinces since the end of the hostilities.

In Kirkuk, Mosul, and in the southern city of Basra, which was the scene of heavy fighting between British troops and Iraqi soldiers, young boys and girls can be seen playing football among stockpiles of ammunition, heaps of hand grenades and artillery shells, and destroyed army tanks, unaware of the danger.

"Those piles of unexploded ordnance are causing the problems because of children tampering with them, taking out propellants and setting fire to them to make big flashes. [Those are] basically dangerous games [that have been causing] enormous casualty rates. Just in the north, on a sort of strip between Kifri, Kirkuk, and Mosul, in the first two weeks [that followed the end of the hostilities], there were over 300 casualties, largely children," the MAG's Sutton said.

In some cases, youngsters were killed or injured while banging bullets out of heavy machine-gun cartridges for the purpose of selling them to neighboring Iran for the value of their brass.

But stockpiles of abandoned munitions are by far not the only problem. Cluster bombs, with their toylike appearance and their bright yellow or orange casings, which look similar to the food rations handed out to civilians by U.S. forces, constitute a major threat to Iraqi children.

Cluster bombs are controversial because of their potentially indiscriminate character. Each bomb contains hundreds or thousands of individual bomblets that spread over a large area after being delivered by air bombing, artillery, or ground rocket fire.

The newest cluster bomblets -- such as the U.S.-made BLU-108 anti-armor device used for the first time during the Iraq war -- are equipped with self-destruct mechanisms that, at least in principle, reduce the risk to civilians. Yet, as Sutton explained, depending on the conditions under which they are delivered, some fail to explode.

"Like all weapons that are fired, a percentage will fail to activate as they are designed to do. Cluster bombs can have quite a high failure rate. The official statistics are between 5 and 10 percent, but often the failure rate is higher than that. We have come across strikes where a lot more than that sort of percentage has failed to detonate," he said.

A report published on 1 May by the U.K.-based "Jane's Intelligence Review" notes that the failure rate of cluster bombs is amplified by the large numbers that are used. For example, the report says, a single salvo from a multiple-launch rocket system delivers more than 7,700 bomblets. A 5 percent failure rate can leave up to 400 devices unexploded.

Although cluster bombs are not banned under international law, the London-based Amnesty International (AI) nongovernmental organization and other human rights groups called on the U.S. and Britain to refrain from using them in Iraq because of the danger they represent to civilian populations. Neither country heeded the request.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon on 3 May defended the use of cluster bombs, saying that not using them would have put the lives of coalition troops at "greater and unnecessary risk."

General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said coalition forces used cluster munitions in "very specific cases against valid military targets" and only when it was a "military necessity."

Cluster bombs are designed to strike large troop concentrations or to penetrate armored vehicles and, under international humanitarian law, their use should be limited to areas where there are no civilians. But, as AI spokeswoman Teresa Richardson told our correspondent, there is evidence that the U.S. might have dropped or fired cluster bombs in heavy populated areas.

"We, for instance, on 2 April put out a statement because there were a number of people, about 300 civilians, injured in the town of Al-Hillah [east of Karbala], and we felt that the use of cluster bombs in that area constituted an indiscriminate attack and was a violation of international humanitarian law," Richardson said.

Richardson said neither the U.S. administration nor the Pentagon has reacted to the statement, which also reported the death of 33 civilians, including many children.

Officially, the U.S. military says it airdropped some 1,500 cluster bombs in Iraq during the conflict. Britain, in turn, has admitted to dropping no more than 60 such devices and to delivering 2,000 cluster munitions by artillery fire. How many bombs U.S. forces fired from the ground remains unclear.

The U.S. military has admitted to accidentally dropping 26 cluster bombs in civilian areas in Iraq, and says there was only one case of death or injury to a noncombatant. The U.S. says Iraq placed many military targets near civilian populations.

Last month, HRW criticized both the U.S. and Britain for failing to provide detailed information that would help mine-removal teams clear such munitions.

MAG's Sutton, however, said coalition troops have helped his organization identify cluster-bomb strikes on military targets that were rapidly cleared. But human rights groups would like to see the U.S.-led forces more deeply involved in the clearance process.

AI spokeswoman Richardson told RFE/RL: "What we would like to see is the military going back and clearing bomblets, particularly from civilian areas, but also from everywhere because once a cluster bomb is used it remains on the ground and it literally becomes like a land mine. We had people in Basra and they've seen in hospitals children who had basically lost limbs from playing with cluster bombs or accidentally stepping on them. So what needs to happen is for the military to go in and basically clear areas of those munitions. What we don't know at this point is to which extent that is happening."

The ICRC has listed the protection of civilians as among the main priorities facing the occupation forces in Iraq. But, as ICRC spokeswoman al-Rifai pointed out, unexploded ordnance from the latest conflict is only part of the problem. "One has to take into account the fact that there are several superposed layers [of land mines and unexploded ordnance] in that country," she said. "Some date back from the [1980-88] Iraq-Iran war, some from the war [waged by Iraqi troops] in Kurdish areas, some from the Gulf War, and some from the [latest] conflict. One speaks here of several layers and, therefore, of increased danger. If land mines are mostly concentrated in areas close to the Iranian border and to the [demarcation line] with Kurdish-held territories, inside the country it is unexploded ordnance which constitutes the main problem."

The ICRC has already identified nine contaminated sites and reported them to the coalition forces for clearance. In cooperation with the Iraqi Red Crescent, the organization has also launched a program to raise land-mine and unexploded-ordnance awareness among schoolchildren and civilians.

Yet, the organization says that, one month after the cessation of major hostilities, a lot remains to be done. "We are still at the early stages. What we are doing now is collecting information to get a general idea of what is going on. Not a day goes by without some tragic incident happening. Our people on the ground are being told horrible stories, like that of these parents whose daughter was killed in a blast and who had to pick up her remains from the walls with a spatula. What is important for us is to have many information sources in order to do our own mapping of the region. All reliable information we get, we pass on to the coalition forces," al-Rifai said.

Sutton from MAG said removing unexploded ordnance is not an insurmountable task and can easily be tackled by coalition troops or any experienced team of civilian engineers. But as far as northern Iraq is concerned, he says, the long-term problem is going to be land mines. During the anti-Kurdish "Anfal" operations of the late 1980s and early 1990s alone, Iraqi troops mined an estimated 5,000 Kurdish villages. "Land mines will take much longer to deal with," Sutton said.

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