The Iraq War Is Not War, It Is Murder

As if there can be some distinction. For many of us involved in The Rag Blog, all war is murder.

Did the U.S. Lie about Cluster Bomb Use in Iraq?
The Shape of a Shadowy Air War

By Nick Turse

Did the U.S. military use cluster bombs in Iraq in 2006 and then lie about it? Does the U.S. military keep the numbers of rockets and cannon rounds fired from its planes and helicopters secret because more Iraqi civilians have died due to their use than any other type of weaponry?

These are just two of the many unanswered questions related to the largely uncovered air war the U.S. military has been waging in Iraq.

What we do know is this: Since the major combat phase of the war ended in April 2003, the U.S. military has dropped at least 59,787 pounds of air-delivered 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.” We also know that, according to expert opinion, rockets and cannon fire from U.S. aircraft may account for most U.S. and coalition-attributed Iraqi civilian deaths and that the Pentagon has restocked hundreds of millions of dollars worth of these weapons in recent years.

Unfortunately, thanks to an utter lack of coverage by the mainstream media, what we don’t know about the air war in Iraq so far outweighs what we do know that anything but the most minimal picture of the nature of destruction from the air in that country simply can’t be painted. Instead, think of the story of U.S. air power in Iraq as a series of tiny splashes of lurid color on a largely blank canvas.

Cluster Bombs

Even among the least covered aspects of the air war in Iraq, the question of cluster-bomb (CBU) use remains especially shadowy. This is hardly surprising. After all, at a time when many nations are moving toward banning the use of cluster munitions — at a February 2007 conference in Oslo, Norway, 46 of 48 governments represented supported a declaration for a new international treaty and ban on the weapons by 2008 — the U.S. stands with China, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia in opposing new limits of any kind.

Little wonder. The U.S. military has a staggering arsenal of these weapons. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the Army holds 88% of the Pentagon’s CBU inventory — at least 638.3 million of the cluster bomblets that are stored inside each cluster munition; the Air Force and Navy, according to Department of Defense figures, have 22.2 million and 14.7 million of the bomblets, respectively. And even these numbers are considered undercounts by experts.

A cluster bomb bursts above the ground, releasing hundreds of smaller, deadly submunitions or “bomblets” that increase the weapon’s kill radius causing, as Garlasco puts it, “indiscriminate effects.” It’s a weapon, he 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, U.S. cluster munitions have a high failure rate. A sizeable number of dud bomblets fall to the ground and become de facto landmines which, Garlasco points out, are “already banned by most nations on this planet.” Garlasco adds: “I don’t see how any use of the current U.S. cluster bomb arsenal in proximity to civilian objects can be defended in any way as being legal or legitimate.”

In an email message earlier this year, a U.S. Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF) spokesman told this reporter that “there were no instances” of CBU usage in Iraq in 2006. But military documents suggest this might not be the case.

Last year, Titus Peachey of the Mennonite Central Committee — an organization that has studied the use of cluster munitions for more than 30 years — filed a Freedom of Information Act request concerning the U.S. military’s use of cluster bombs in Iraq since “major combat operations” officially ended in that country. In their response, the Air Force confirmed that 63 CBU-87 cluster bombs were dropped in Iraq between May 1, 2003 and August 1, 2006. A CENTAF spokesman contacted for confirmation that none of these were dropped on or after January 1, 2006, offered no response. His superior officer, Lt. Col. Johnn Kennedy, the Deputy Director of CENTAF Public Affairs, similarly ignored this reporter’s requests for clarification.

These 12,726 BLU-97 bomblets — each CBU-87 contains 202 BLU-97s or “Combined Effects Bombs” (CEBs) which have anti-personnel, anti-tank, and incendiary capabilities or “kill mechanisms” — dropped since May 2003 are, according to statistics provided by Human Rights Watch, in addition to almost two million cluster submunitions used by coalition forces in Iraq in March and April 2003.

Asked about CBU usage by the Air Force in Iraq in 2006, Ali al-Fadhily, an independent Iraqi journalist, commented: “The use of cluster bombs is a sure thing, but it was very difficult to prove because there were no international experts to document it.” In the past, however, international experts have actually had a chance to examine some locations where a fraction of the bomblets that coalition forces used have landed.

On a 2004 research trip to Iraq, for instance, Titus Peachey visited numerous sites which had experienced such strikes. At a farm in northern Iraq, he was shown not only impact craters from exploded bomblets on a farmer’s property but also unexploded bomblets, by a team from the Mines Advisory Group, a humanitarian organization devoted to landmine and bomb clearance. While “the de-miners expressed frustration that the farmer had planted his field before it had been cleared,” Peachey explained that this was a common, if dangerous, practice in such situations. The U.S. used similar ordnance in Laos during the Vietnam War, he pointed out, noting:

“The villagers of Laos waited more than 20 years for clearance work to get started in their fields and villages. During that time they had no choice but to till soil that was filled with bombs. Otherwise they could not eat. In Iraq, the several visits that we made confirmed this very same dynamic. People could not afford to wait until clearance teams made their farms safe for cultivation. They had to take great risks in order to survive.”

Evidence of these risks can be found in U.S. military documents. Case in point: a June 2005 internal memorandum from the U.S. Army’s 42d Infantry Division which describes how a 15-year old Iraqi boy, working as a 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 in compensation for the boy’s life, the Army granted that his death was “a horrible loss for the claimant,” his mother, but concluded that there was “insufficient evidence to indicate that US. Forces caused the death.”

Iraqi documents also chronicle the effects of air-delivered cluster munitions. Take a September 2006 report by the Conservation Center of Environment & Reserves, an Iraqi non-governmental organization (NGO), examining alleged violations of the laws of war by U.S. forces during the April 2004 siege of Fallujah. According to its partial list of civilian deaths, at least 53 people were killed by air-launched cluster bombs in the city that April. An analysis of data collected by another Iraqi NGO, the Iraqi Health and Social Care Organization, showed that, between March and June 2006, of 193 war-injured casualties analyzed, 148 (77%) were the result of cluster munitions of unspecified type.

Air War, Iraq: 2006

While cluster bombs remain a point of contention, Air Force officials do acknowledge that U.S. military and coalition aircraft dropped at least 111,000 pounds of other types of bombs on targets in Iraq in 2006. This figure — 177 bombs in all — does not include guided missiles or unguided rockets fired, or cannon rounds expended; nor, according to a CENTAF spokesman, does it take into account the munitions used by some Marine Corps and other coalition fixed-wing aircraft or any Army or Marine Corps helicopter gunships; nor does it include munitions used by the armed helicopters of the many private security contractors flying their own missions in Iraq.

In statistics provided to me, CENTAF reported a total of 10,519 “close air support missions” in Iraq in 2006, during which its aircraft dropped those 177 bombs and fired 52 “Hellfire/Maverick missiles.” The Guided Bomb Unit-12, a laser-guided bomb with a 500-pound general purpose warhead — 95 of which were reportedly dropped in 2006 — was the most frequently used bomb in Iraq last year, according to CENTAF. In addition, 67 satellite-guided, 500-pound GBU-38s and 15 2,000-pound GBU-31/32 munitions were also dropped on Iraqi targets in 2006, according to official U.S. figures. There is no independent way, however, to confirm the accuracy of this official count.

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