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Iraq: Rights Group Cites Casualty Problems With U.S.-led War

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said repeatedly that U.S.-led coalition forces have conducted the war in Iraq "humanely." For the most part, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch agrees. But the group says in a report the United States and its allies did take action that resulted in unnecessary deaths of civilians.

Washington, 15 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Overall, Human Rights Watch found that U.S. forces and its coalition allies have done their best to avoid unnecessary casualties in Iraq. Yet, in a recent report, it found the use of cluster munitions and the attempts on Saddam Hussein's life particularly disturbing.

Cluster munitions are bombs, artillery shells, or rockets that scatter hundreds of smaller bombs -- so-called "bomblets" -- when they hit their targets. They have been in use since the 1960s, when U.S. forces fired them against enemy supply lines in the Vietnam War.

Although effective against groupings of forces, these weapons are more indiscriminate than other weapons and often injure or kill civilians, according to the New York-based rights advocacy group.

What is worse, the "bomblets," or "sub-munitions," scattered by cluster munitions have a failure rate of 16 percent, according to Bonnie Docherty, a researcher in Human Rights Watch's Arms Division in Washington.

Docherty, who helped write the report, told RFE/RL that to children each of these unexploded "bomblets" looks more like a toy than a weapon. "It has a long white ribbon at the end that's used to stabilize it in flight and to arm it. But kids see this and they say, 'Oh, it's a little bell with a handle.' So they grab it by the ribbon and then it can explode," she said.

The organization says coalition forces used more than 13,000 cluster munitions in Iraq, which released more than 2 million "smaller bombs." The report does not include figures on Iraqi civilians killed or wounded by the sub-munitions that did not immediately explode.

The group compared the use of cluster munitions in Iraq with their use in previous conflicts, including the NATO action in Yugoslavia and the war in Afghanistan. The report praises one branch of the U.S. military, the U.S. Air Force, saying it used these weapons in populated areas much less than it did in previous wars. But the report says the U.S. Army did not reduce its reliance on them, even in populated areas.

Further, Human Rights Watch criticizes U.S. efforts to kill Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants. The Bush administration describes them as "decapitation" missions. The organization says coalition forces made 50 strikes in efforts to kill senior Iraqi officials during the so-called major conflict, which ended on 1 May, yet had a failure rate of 100 percent. The organization says the targeting for these missions was based on Iraqi satellite-telephone transmissions and questionable back-up evidence.

The report says nearby innocent civilians were not immune to such raids, which used enormously powerful bombs, and dozens were killed. "The weapons they use, precision-guided munitions, can be accurate within a few feet or meters, but you don't know exactly where the target is, so you're using a precise munition but with imprecise intelligence," Docherty said.

Docherty says her organization has no objection to targeting legitimate military objectives. She says it does, however, object to the way they were targeted.

Human Rights Watch is not alone in disapproving of the U.S. use of cluster munitions and the way it tried to kill Hussein and his associates.

Retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson says he was surprised to learn during the early days of the war that cluster weapons were part of the coalition's everyday arsenal. In fact, he says, they are helpful only in certain conditions. "I can't imagine a circumstance that we've seen in Iraq where cluster bombs would be useful, because it's a [wide-area] weapon, when you don't have a precise target to go after or your target is so diffuse that a single explosive won't do the job," he said, adding that it is important to have cluster weapons available, but only in case they are truly needed.

As for the so-called "decapitation" strikes against Hussein and his senior advisers, Atkeson too believes that they were legitimate in concept. But he says he is bothered by the margin of error necessary to make the strikes. He says destroying a radius of 100 meters in a populated area runs too great a risk of killing or injuring innocent people. "If it's in an urban area, that's a stretch that seems problematic," he said. "You're talking about maybe 500 people possibly in an area like that. That's a little more than you want to take on."

Human Rights Watch does not limit itself to finding fault with aspects of the coalition performance in Iraq. Docherty has two suggestions that would let U.S. armed forces dramatically reduce civilian casualties. One means, Docherty says, is simply to sharply limit the use of cluster bombs, as the U.S. Air Force did. The second is to bring more long-range artillery to combat areas.

Docherty explained that during the "major combat" period that ended on 1 May, U.S. forces had trouble defending against long-range mortars being used by Iraqi troops. She says the Iraqi mortars had a greater range than the available U.S. artillery, so the Americans relied instead on cluster bombs to silence them. The Iraqi mortars often were situated in populated areas, so civilians as well as Iraqi soldiers were killed or injured.

If the Americans had access to longer-range conventional artillery, Docherty says, they could have attacked the Iraqi mortars more precisely with fewer civilian casualties.

As for lessening casualties during "decapitation" strikes, Docherty says, she has only one recommendation: Get better intelligence or don't conduct them at all.