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A month later, cluster bombs remain deadly

Iraqis say fields of munitions fell even though no enemy troops were around. Now, unsuspecting residents are the victims.

By Associated Press,
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 18, 2003

HILLAH, Iraq - The telltale evidence is everywhere: in the pattern of blast marks gouged in a schoolyard's concrete, in the yellow metal casings that once held small bombs, in the bomblets themselves.

A month after U.S. cluster munitions fell in a deadly shower on Hillah's teeming slums as U.S. forces drove toward victory in Baghdad, 55 miles to the north, the most telling evidence might lie in the crowded, fly-infested wards of the city hospital, where the toll of dead and wounded mounts.

At least 250 Iraqis were killed and more than 500 wounded during 17 days of fighting in the area, most of them civilians and many the victims of cluster munitions, hospital medical staff said. Leftover bomblets kill or maim hapless civilians daily, they said.

As the pieces of the story of what happened in Hillah in late March and early April begin to fall together, gaps and uncertainties remain, including the question of whether Iraqi troops were in Nadr, Amira and other Hillah-area districts when they were attacked.

On April 3, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command indicated the matter was being investigated. The next day he said U.S. targeting in such densely populated areas was "very precise."

A month later, the command's Lt. Herb Josey said, "It is correct to assume the investigation is still going on." The command has received no results, he said, without describing of what the investigation consisted.

While Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed last month high-flying B-52s dropped cluster bombs during the push to Baghdad, the Pentagon has not acknowledged the use of cluster munitions around Hillah.

Such weapons - delivered by rockets, howitzer shells and air-dropped bombs - open up before impact to scatter many tiny bomblets over wide areas, sometimes the size of a football field. The weapons were first used in the Indochina War, when U.S. aircraft dropped them on enemy jungle camps and supply trails. Unexploded bomblets still pose a hazard to civilians there. Leftover duds inflict casualties in Afghanistan, Angola, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kuwait.

The use of such weapons is not explicitly banned under international law, but human rights groups think it should be, or at least banned in populated areas as too indiscriminate.

They also point to the weapons' high "dud rate" - the percentage that don't explode on impact, leaving stray bomblets to kill the unsuspecting later. Military experts say artillery-fired cluster munitions have a dud rate of up to 5 percent, but New York-based Human Rights Watch claims the rates for some artillery types are three to four times higher.

How the cluster munitions were delivered - by air or by artillery - is lost in confused Iraqi memories and in the U.S. military's silence. Wherever they came from, by April 1 hellish scenes were unfolding at Hillah Surgical Hospital. Foreign journalists, bused to Hillah by Saddam Hussein's Information Ministry, found dozens of dead and wounded civilians, many children, jammed into coffins and lying in hallways.

The besieged doctors reported 33 dead civilians and more than 300 wounded, many from Nadr.

Over 17 days, from bombing and other fighting, the hospital's records indicate about 500 civilians were wounded, and the hospital's director, Dr. Adil al-Himiri, said about 250 people were killed.

Weeks after the attacks, some victims were still hospitalized, including 13-year-old Faleh Hassan, who lost a hand and has needed several operations for severe foot wounds.

An uncle, Hadi Maraza, said five in Faleh's family were wounded. "I think it was artillery shells," Maraza said of the April 1 events. "Before landing they sent small bombs flying, like balls." He said no Iraqi soldiers were in the area. "It was random shelling."

With Hussein's regime toppled, the hospital staff felt more free to talk by late April. What they said tended to justify the U.S. attack.

"The old regime put military tanks in between the houses, and so they were bombed," said al-Himiri, the hospital director. "It's the truth. There were military targets."

But civil defense workers who went to Nadr immediately saw no sign of the Iraqi military.

That agrees with what Nadr residents consistently said: The Iraqi military had set up mortars or artillery in Nadr, apparently in a date-palm grove on the fringe of the slum, but had pulled out. Deaths come daily, as duds explode when picked up, kicked or otherwise disturbed. "I've dealt with 300 cluster bombs in one day," said Hillal Saadi, a civil defense explosives specialist, who destroys duds by piling them up and dynamiting them.

The Hillah area civil defense director, Hussein Jaber, said unexploded bomblets had been retrieved from schoolrooms and people's bedrooms.

A corner of his office's front lot is heaped with examples recovered from surrounding areas - from dark gray, 3-inch-long bomblets to two bulbous, 6-foot-long, yellow-green shells that held hundreds of bomblets.

Saadi, whose ordnance-disposal experience stretches back to the 1991 Gulf War, said the Americans have adopted more advanced cluster munitions. For one thing, "there are more fragments," he said, and held up a shattered yellow metal shell stamped "Bomb, Frag, BLU-97A/B."

"Children were playing with this one when it exploded," he said. "Two were killed and six wounded. It happened three days before the fall of Baghdad."

The BLU-97 is one of the most sophisticated U.S. cluster weapons, capable of scattering 40 bomblets over a 4,800-square-yard area and deadly against tanks and soldiers in the open.

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