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Editorial 6 May 2003

How many civilians were killed by cluster bombs?

The Pentagon says 1: Iraq Body Count says at least 200.

John Sloboda and Hamit Dardagan

Tuesday 6 May 2003

It is understandable that the US government should wish to play down the damage done to Iraqi civilians by cluster bombs. The rules of war prohibit the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons. Cluster bombs are weapons which are incapable of being used in a manner that complies with the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Those who use them in civilian areas therefore open themselves to charges of war crimes.

Even so, last month’s claim by the Pentagon that only one civilian has died from cluster bombing is breathtaking in its audacious distortion of reality. General Richard Myers, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday 25th April:

Only one of the nearly 1,500 cluster bombs used by coalition forces in Iraq resulted in civilian casualties. An initial review of all cluster munitions used and the targets they were used on indicate that only 26 of those approximately 1,500 hit targets within 1,500 feet of civilian neighborhoods. And there's been only one recorded case of collateral damage from cluster munitions noted so far.1

But this was only part of the picture, for:

[...]Myers did not mention surface-launched cluster munitions, which are believed to have caused many more civilian casualties.

“To imply that cluster munitions caused virtually no harm to Iraqi civilians is highly disingenuous,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Instead of whitewashing the facts, the Pentagon needs to come clean about the Army's use of cluster munitions, which has been much more fatal to civilians.”2

Data compiled by Iraq Body Count from widely published press and media reports shows that at least 200 civilian deaths have already been reliably reported as being due to cluster bombs, with up to a further 172 less firmly linked deaths that also involved other munitions. The table below lists these 372 deaths and provides basic information for all reported incidents in which cluster bombs were involved. It reveals that 147 of the 372 deaths have been caused by detonation of unexploded or “dud” munitions, with around half this number being children.

Cluster bombs have been used by coalition forces right through the war. Basra, Nassiriya, Hilla, Najaf, Manaria, Baghdad: all these towns have lost scores of civilian lives in cluster bombing raids. The reports make sickening reading. For example Robert Fisk of the Independent wrote:

Terrifying film of women and children later emerged after Reuters and the Associated Press were permitted by the Iraqi authorities to take their cameras into the town. Their pictures - the first by Western news agencies from the Iraqi side of the battlefront - showed babies cut in half and children with amputation wounds, apparently caused by American shellfire and cluster bombs. Much of the videotape was too terrible to show on television and the agencies’ Baghdad editors felt able to send only a few minutes of a 21-minute tape that included a father holding out pieces of his baby and screaming “cowards, cowards” into the camera. Two lorryloads of bodies, including women in flowered dresses, could be seen outside the Hilla hospital.3

Not only do cluster bombs kill; they maim in particularly excruciating ways. On April 10th Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times reported that

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-Duleimi, at the al-Kindi hospital, confirms the absolute majority of patients are women and children, victims of bullets, shrapnel and most of all, fragments of cluster bombs: “They are all civilians,” he says, “caught in aerial and artillery bombardment”. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is in a state of almost desperation. Its spokesman, Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, contacted by satellite telephone, still mentions casualties arriving at hospitals at a rate of as many as 100 per hour and at least 100 per day.4

The Mirror’s reporter Anton Antonowicz visiting a hospital in Hillah, wrote

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. “All the injuries you see were caused by cluster bombs,” Dr Hydar Abbas told Antonowicz. “Most of the people came from the southern and western periphery. The majority of the victims were children who died because they were outside.” 5

The damage doesn’t stop when the bombs stop falling. Unexploded cluster bomblets continue to kill and maim. Their victims are predominantly children. According to Amnesty International,

Each canister contains 202 small bomblets the size of a soft drink can. These cluster bombs scatter and spray over a large area about the size of two football fields. At least 5 per cent of the bomblets do not explode on impact, turning them into de facto anti-personnel mines as they continue to pose a threat to people, including civilians, who come into contact with them.6

This means that on average 10 bomblets from each bomb remain unexploded. If the Pentagon figure of 1500 cluster bombs used is to be accepted, this alone makes 15,000 unexploded bomblets, each capable of killing half a dozen civilians.

So far, most of the victims clearly identified as children in these reports - from babies to young teenagers - have been killed after the cessation of direct bombing raids, often because they touched or attempted to pick up a brightly-coloured or otherwise enticing bomblet. More die every day, and could continue to do so for many months to come. Hamza Hendawi of the Associated Press came across one of the most harrowing cases in a Baghdad hospital:

In the deserted emergency ward, Mohammed Suleiman hysterically looked for his 8-month-old daughter, Rowand, brought in after a bomb her brother unwittingly brought home exploded. “Please look at her face and see how beautiful she is,” he screamed when he found the baby's lifeless body, covered with a blanket, her eyes half open, her nose and mouth bloodied.7

The lower half of her body had been blown away as she crawled on the floor, disturbing a cluster bomblet brought into the house by other children.8

On April 8th, Amnesty International urged that

An independent and thorough investigation must be held and those found responsible for any violations of the laws of war should be brought to justice. The US and UK authorities should order the immediate halt to further use of cluster bombs.9

It is unsurprising to us that, on the same day as General Myers issued his “body count” of 1, the United States blocked international efforts to allow a United Nations Human Rights Commission investigator of crimes under Saddam Hussein to look at the post-Saddam period.10

Some countries had wanted the investigator to be given powers that would have allowed him to consider the behavior of U.S. and British troops now controlling Iraq after last month’s invasion.

Such blocking strongly suggests that the USA and the UK have much to hide. The data we have published tells a small part of the story which the Iraqi people are entitled to demand be told in full before they are asked to “put this war behind them.” The majority of the world’s people will surely support any such demand.

John Sloboda and Hamit Dardagan - Tuesday May 6th 2003

Incidents in which civilians were reported killed by cluster bombs or bomblets:

Based on details available to IBC on 6th May 2003. Source abbreviations are those used in the main IBC database. Any additional sources’ names are unabbreviated. Some numbers have been lowered from those given in the original reports to prevent overlaps and double-counting by IBC, but overall totals are unaffected.

Cluster bombing incidents from Iraq Body Count database
Date of incident Date of bombing Place Circumstances Reported civilians killed (Minimum) Other details Sources
22 Mar 22 Mar Basra “mostly cluster bombs” 50 Among the dead an infant aged two and and a decapitated eight-year-old ABC Mar 23
WP 22 Mar
AFP 22 Mar
IBC x008]
23 Mar 23 Mar Civilian areas of Nassiriya “three or four” (pre-dispersal) cluster bombs 10 Over two hundred wounded GUA 25 Mar
CT 25 Mar
IBC x019]
27-28 Mar 28 Mar Najaf Cluster bombing 26 - REU 28 Mar
RTE 28 Mar
IHT 28 Mar
IBC j006]
01 Apr 01 Apr Nader district of Hilla Cluster bombing witnessed by AFP journalist 33 Children among the dead HT 01 Apr
WP 01 Apr
IBC x030]
02 Apr 02 Apr (1.30 – 6.00 AM) Karama district of Najaf Cluster bombing 40 Including father and two uncles of survivor Zahraa Hashem, fifteen, whose pelvis was crushed in the blast AN 09 Apr
MH 09 Apr
KR 17 Apr
IBC x057]
20 Mar – 03 Apr 20 Mar – 3 Apr Mohammedia district Suspected cluster bombings 41 - ALT 08 Apr
IND 04 Apr
IBC j020]
03 Apr 03 Apr Al-Dora district, Baghdad High yield cluster bomb dropped on busy street 14 - Iraqwar.ru 04 Apr
Bonita News 04 Apr
IBC k001]
9-21 Apr 09 Apr Ghazaliya district of Baghdad Cluster bombing, possibly from a B-52 19 Accounts from “partial survey” of residents Newsday Apr 22
GlobalSecurity Apr 22
IBC x064]
10–17 Apr Unknown al-Tadhiya slum, Nasiriyah Unexploded cluster bomblet picked up by boys 3 Boys aged between seven and fourteen Times Apr 19
Statesman Apr 20
IBC j033]
11 Apr Unknown Baghdad Unexploded cluster bomblet picked up by child 2 Killed children were friends of horribly injured Ali Hamed, ten, whose “stomach was cut open, spilling out his intestines” Gulf News 16 Apr
Newsday 15 Apr
IBC j026]
11 Apr 09 Apr Living-room of family, central Baghdad Unexploded cluster bomblet touched by baby 1 Rowand Mohammed Suleiman, eight months old TOI 12 Apr
BG 11 Apr
GUA 12 Apr
IBC j022]
12 Apr 09 Apr Footpath in Baghdad Child picked up unexploded bomblet and dropped it 2 Haitham Tamimi, seven, and Nora Tamimi, nine Newsday Apr 22
GlobalSecurity Apr 22
IBC x064]
07 Apr – 12 Apr Unknown Dura district of Baghdad Unexploded cluster bomblets picked up by children 3 All from one family AP 12 Apr
ABC 12 Apr
IBC x051]
07-15 Apr Unknown Al-Kharnouq district of Baghdad Unexploded cluster bomblet picked up by boys 3 All children - Ghassan and Arkan Majid and their friend, Uday al Shimarey KR 16 Apr
Miami Herald 16 Apr
IBC j027]
18 Apr Unknown Baghdad Disturbing an unexploded M-42 cluster bomblet 1 Iraqi man killed and three US soldiers injured GUA 19 Apr
AP 25 Apr
IBC x062]
19 Apr Unknown Baghdad Unexploded M-42 cluster bomblet 3 Young girls - two died instantly, the third in hospital. One US soldier also died later. KR 27 Apr
CT 28 Apr
IBC x070]
26 Apr Unknown Baghdad Unexploded cluster bomblet 2 Girls playing outdoors - Dana, aged eight and Lamiya, aged six KR 27 Apr
CT 28 Apr
IBC x071]
19 Apr Unknown Baghdad Unexploded bomblet found in street by group of children 3 All children. Cousin and two friends of Ali Madhi Kathum, twelve, “whose left shoulder and arm were shredded” AN 23 Apr
IND 24 Apr
IBC x059]
10 Apr – 24 Apr Unknown Dibs and Kalar, N. Iraq unexploded ordnance – including cluster bombs 29 “More adults and children killed and maimed in these regions after the war than during it” GUA 28 Apr
CO 28 Apr
IBC x068]
14 Apr – 21 Apr Prior to 09 Apr Kirkuk, N. Iraq “mines and unexploded ordnance” – including cluster bombs 52 “mostly children” DM 21 Apr
MAG 21 Apr
UPI 21 Apr
IBC x058]
06 Apr-03 May Prior to 06 Apr Karbala post-conquest cluster bomblet blasts 35 many bodies dismembered - one child aged six, Duaa Raheem, had her body “ripped in half” TIME 03 May
News24 04 May
IBC x072]

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