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US: Israel Likely Violated Cluster Bomb Agreement During Hezbollah War

The Bush administration has told Congress that Israel likely violated U.S. arms export agreements with its use of cluster munitions against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last year. The State Department says a preliminary report on the issue has been sent to Congress. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Reports of Israel's widespread use of the cluster munitions during the 34-day conflict drew international criticism and triggered a State Department-led investigation, a preliminary report on which has now been sent to relevant committees of the U.S. Congress.

Cluster munitions are anti-personnel weapons, including artillery shells, rockets and gravity bombs, that scatter tiny bomblets over a wide area.

Since the brief war between Israel and Hezbollah ended last August, scores of civilians in southern Lebanon have been killed or wounded by leftover bomblets despite a costly clean-up effort by the United Nations and other agencies.

The precise terms of the agreements under which the United States has provided cluster weapons to Israel are classified, but officials here have said the weapons are not supposed to be used in populated areas, partly because of the lingering risk of unexploded bomblets.

In a talk with reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the report on the department's preliminary investigation of the case was sent to Congress Monday, and that it concludes that Israel probably violated those understandings:

"It's a set of preliminary findings. And as I said, the law requires that if after some period of investigation, we believe there was a likely violation of the use agreements, then we send the reports," he said. "You can conclude from the fact that we sent the report that there are some questions about it."

McCormack said that Israel has been very responsive and transparent in providing information to investigators on its use of the munitions.

A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington said the weapons were used to counter unprovoked Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli population centers, and that Israel acted as any country would have in self-defense.

Israel says that before firing at suspected rocket launching sites in Lebanese towns, its forces dropped leaflets warning civilians of the attacks.

Spokesman McCormack stressed that the report, prepared by outgoing State Department arms control chief Robert Joseph was not a final judgment. He declined to speculate on what punitive action, if any, might be taken against Israel if a violation is confirmed.

The U.S. government has investigated several complaints of Israeli misuse of American-supplied military hardware over the years.

The Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on cluster-weapon sales to Israel after a congressional probe found that Israel has used the weapons in civilian areas in its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

The United States and Israel have also sparred over Israeli sales to China of weapons systems containing U.S.-derived technology. In 2000, the United States blocked a lucrative deal under which Israel was to have sold China an advanced airborne early-warning radar system.