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Napalm then, cluster bomb now
Iraqi Republican Guard units gather on the outskirts of Baghdad on Thursday. (AFP)

Kuwait, April 3: British forces in south Iraq have used cluster bombs on ‘military targets’ in or near the city of Basra that have caused civilian casualties.

Cluster bombs — cases of smaller bombs called ‘bomblets’ — are usually dropped by aircraft and explode in mid-air to cause devastation over a large radius. The bomblets are designed to explode and pierce armour.

British military spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon did not deny that cluster bombs have indeed been used but asserted that “I can vouch that cluster bombs have not been used on civilians.” Vernon said the use of cluster munitions against military targets — such as Iraqi regular forces and convoys — was “legitimate”.

International human rights organisations have campaigned steadily against the use of cluster bombs — like land mines. They say many of the bomblets do not explode on impact and cause civilian casualties later. Amnesty International said at least five per cent are ‘dud’ bomblets and fail to explode on impact, effectively turning them into anti-personnel mines.

The rights groups fear that cluster bombs will soon overtake landmines as the most lethal legacy of war.

Every modern war throws up a weapon of destruction that continues to haunt people long afterwards. In the Second World War it was the atom bomb; in Vietnam, it was Napalm; and in Afghanistan it was the cluster bomb.

The British forces are known to have the “L20” cluster bombs in their arsenal. In a situation like Baghdad, it would be difficult to distinguish all the time between regular army units and irregulars from the distance the British forces are currently in.

The US forces have been using the CBU-87 cluster bomb. During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, US air force bombers was reported to have dropped the CBU-87s on Taliban positions but the bomblets dispersed a long way, taking a heavy toll of civilian life.

Iraqi officials have been alleging that the coalition forces have been using cluster bombs regularly in the war. Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf today accused US forces of dropping cluster bombs on the Douri residential area of Baghdad, killing 14 people and wounding 66.

A day earlier, Dr Sadid Moussawi, at a hospital in the medieval city of Hilla, 100 km south of Baghdad, said 33 Iraqi civilians had been killed and more than 300 wounded in US air raids on a residential area using cluster bombs. “They are using cluster bombs,” Moussawi said. “We can tell from the distribution of shrapnel.”

The US military said on Wednesday its B-52 bombers had dropped new precision-guided 1,000-pound cluster bombs on Iraqi tanks defending Baghdad, but did not say where the attack took place.

And they insisted that, while they reserve the right to use these new cluster bombs in combat, they would never target civilians with them.

The controversial weapons dropped by the US B52s are new and upgraded versions of older munitions, adapted to allow for wind and weather conditions to make them more accurate. After they are dropped, they open up in the air and disperse bomblets by parachute. The bomblet packages are designed to land more precisely on intended target areas.

Amnesty International UK demanded on Wednesday a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs in heavily populated areas.

“The use of cluster bombs in an attack on a civilian area of Hilla constitutes an indiscriminate attack and a grave violation of international humanitarian law,” it said in a statement. Amnesty said the type of cluster bomblets used in the Hilla attack was BLU97 A/B. Each cannister contains over 200 bomblets.

According to one estimate, US forces dropped over 50 million cluster bombs in the 1991 Gulf War. Thousands of unexploded bomblets remain in Iraq and Kuwait from the Gulf War.

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