Since World War II air power has been key to the American way of warfare–and civilian casualties have been a constant result, from Japan and Korea to Southeast Asia and now Afghanistan and Iraq. This year a seeming surge in airstrikes has led to a corresponding spike in civilian casualties. For example, in a two-day span in May, an airstrike in southern Afghanistan killed at least twenty-one civilians, while a US helicopter attack north of Baghdad killed five civilians, including two children. Yet very little is known about the air war. Due to an apparent disregard by the mainstream media, with a few notable exceptions, the full story remains one of the best-kept secrets of the Iraq War.
What we do know is that since the major combat phase of the war ended in April 2003, the United States has dropped at least 59,787 pounds of cluster bombs in Iraq–the very type of weapon that Marc Garlasco, the senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW), calls “the single greatest risk civilians face with regard to a current weapon that is in use.” And expert opinion argues that rocket and cannon fire from US aircraft may account for most coalition-attributed Iraqi civilian deaths. The Pentagon has restocked hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of these weapons in recent years.
The question of cluster-bomb use is especially shadowy. This is hardly surprising. After all, at a time when many nations are moving toward banning cluster munitions–at a February 2007 conference in Oslo, forty-six of forty-eight governments represented supported an international ban by 2008–the United States stands with China, Israel, Pakistan and Russia in opposing new limits of any kind.
A cluster-bomb unit (CBU) bursts above the ground, releasing hundreds of smaller submunitions, or “bomblets,” that increase the weapon’s kill radius. It’s a weapon, Garlasco notes, that “cannot distinguish between a civilian and a soldier when employed because of its wide coverage area. If you’re dropping the weapon and you blow your target up, you’re also hitting everything within a football field. So to use it in proximity to civilians is inviting a violation of the laws of armed conflict.” Worse yet, US cluster munitions have a high failure rate. A sizable number of dud bomblets fall to the ground and become de facto landmines, which, Garlasco points out, are “already banned by most nations.” He adds, “I don’t see how any use of the current US cluster-bomb arsenal in proximity to civilian objects can be defended in any way as being legal or legitimate.”
In the opening phase of the Iraq War (March-April 2003), coalition forces dropped almost 2 million cluster submunitions, according to HRW. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request last year from the Mennonite Central Committee, which has studied the use of cluster munitions for more than thirty years, the Air Force said sixty-three CBU-87s were dropped in Iraq between May 1, 2003, and August 1, 2006 (since each CBU-87 contains 202 bomblets, that would be a total of 12,726 submunitions). The US Central Command Air Forces, or CENTAF, told me earlier this year that “there were no instances” of CBU use in Iraq in 2006, yet when I attempted to clarify the possible dating discrepancy, CENTAF refused to confirm that no CBUs were dropped between January 1 and August 1 of last year.
Evidence of the danger to civilians from these weapons can be found in US military documents. A June 2005 internal memorandum from the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division describes how a 15-year-old Iraqi shepherd “was leading the sheep through north Tikrit, near an ammo storage site, when he picked up a UXO [unexploded ordnance] from a cluster bomb. The UXO detonated and he was killed.” Asked to pay $3,000 to his mother in compensation for the boy’s life, the Army granted that his death was “a horrible loss for the claimant” but concluded there was “insufficient evidence to indicate that U.S. Forces caused the death.”