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Report from Baghdad: US Forces Help Remove Controversial Cluster Bombs - 2003-04-15


The U.S. military continues to retrieve and destroy Iraqi munitions stockpiled around Baghdad. But ordinance demolition teams are also focusing on removing unexploded American cluster bombs used in the war against Saddam Hussein's forces.

An American soldier warns the residents up and down the street to move back. It is hard to keep curious children at a distance. His two-man team is about to explode a cluster bomblet they have just pulled out of the garden of one of the homes there.

The detonation rocks the neighborhood and sets off a nearby car alarm. It is just one of many Captain Thomas Austin and an ordinance team of 10 will set off in an attempt to rid the neighborhood of the deadly bomblets that now litter an area of about one kilometer.

Scores of the U.S. munitions rained down on Al Khournaq neighborhood on April 7 during an American attack on Iraqi military targets half a kilometer away.

Captain Thomas Austin says cluster bombs were fired at an Iraqi anti-aircraft missile site on the edge of the neighborhood. When the bomb explodes it releases as many as 100 bomblets, each one powerful enough to maim or kill.

The small black canisters have a white ribbon on top, like the tail of a kite. They measure less than six centimeters in length and can easily be lost in tall grass, a tree or on the black asphalt that winds through the middle class neighborhood of two-story homes.

One neighborhood resident explains the menace they pose. "The people, when they heard the explosion, they came out from their homes to see what it is," he said. "They saw these bombs, the little bombs we call it. So they are maybe curious about it. So he picks it up to see what it is and the disaster happened."

Four men of Al Khouraq neighborhood have died, and one more has been hospitalized for injuries from the bomblets.

Captain Austin said his team has destroyed 20 bomblets in the Al Khouraq neighborhood.

Some of the small black canisters can be removed after a plaster cast is put over them to freeze the fuse.

Captain Austin says those canisters that cannot be removed will be very carefully dragged into the street and exploded. "This is lodged in the ground on back of some debris, they attach a rope to it and pull it out by this ribbon," he said.

The U.S. officer said it will take another week to remove or destroy about 100 bomblets that are visible. The residents worry about those that are not.

Around the corner, Qusay Abdel Maguid points out several that landed in his garden. "This is one, two, three," he counts. "I have one between the flowers. Look at this. ... I have five children. I want someone to take off these bombs."

Kawther Hussein, a British trained chemical engineer, cannot stop shaking. She is upset, confused and angry. "Why? We are here. The people pay for this war. Not Saddam or anybody else. We want to get rid [of] him but not in this way," she said.

Shawqi Kader's 28-year-old son Uday paid the price on the morning of April 7. Mr. Kader says his son left the house to help the neighbors put out a fire. On his way back someone picked up one of the small canisters and it exploded, killing Uday, a neighbor and his two sons.

There is a long-standing debate over whether cluster bombs should be used in urban warfare.

Human Rights Watch has condemned their use as a violation of international humanitarian law because, like landmines, unexploded munitions left behind are a menace to civilians.

But Louise Doswald-Beck, who heads the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, says the issue is complicated. "One hasn't actually got a treaty banning as such cluster bombs, so it's more a question of whether the circumstances of the use has the effect of being an indiscriminate attack or disproportionately affected civilians," she explained.

Ms. Doswald-Beck says waging war in a densely populated urban area always runs the risk of civilian casualties.

Ordinance disposal units like Captain Austin's team are discovering Saddam Hussein's forces used civilian areas to position or hide their deadly weaponry, which made it more difficult to target them.

"They have put anti-aircraft tanks inside neighborhoods and next to houses," he said. "So when they target our airplanes they take the grid location of the system and they have to shoot back at them. The problem is that they position all this military ordnance in neighborhoods and very close to neighborhoods and things like that."

So the search goes on to find and destroy both the Iraqi weapons hidden in yards and schools and hospitals and the unexploded American munitions that targeted them, all of which make a simple walk in the neighborhood a hazardous undertaking.