Death lurks in unspent US 'bomblets'
By Anne Barnard2, Globe Staff, 5/1/2003
BAGHDAD -- The early-morning bombardment set a neighbor's house on fire, so Rashid Majid and three of his sons rushed out to help. When the fire was out, the brothers -- Arkan, 33, Ghassan, 28, and Nihad, 18 -- noticed that the street was littered with small gray cylinders, each about the length of a man's hand, with a white streamer attached to one end. Their friend Oday Shouki picked one up. So did Arkan.
"Throw that away," Shouki's father warned. Startled, Shouki let go. There was a deafening bang. Arkan dropped the cylinder he was holding, and in the confusion, Nihad Majid recalled, his father stepped on it. Another bang.
"The sound is still in my ears," said Nihad, who recently recounted the April 7 events his family now calls simply "the tragedy." Shouki, Arkan, and Ghassan were killed instantly. Rashid Majid, 58, died the next day, leaving his eldest surviving son, Ayad, 32, to care for his mother, two sisters, his brothers' widows, and their five children.
The four men from the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Doura are among the latest casualties of US cluster munitions, weapons cases that open in midair to shower an area with hundreds of "bomblets."
The weapons are designed to pierce tank armor, destroy roads and runways, or kill soldiers across a broad swath of territory.
But a high percentage fall without exploding, becoming deadly hazards for children or others who come across them. Studies place the "dud rate" at 14-16 percent, and US soldiers in the field say it can go as high as 30 percent.
Human rights groups have urged the US military to stop using cluster munitions, saying that the unexploded bomblets, like land mines, kill indiscriminately long after the conflict is over.
On Friday, General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference that US-led warplanes dropped nearly 1,500 cluster bombs in Iraq, 26 of them within 1,500 feet of civilian neighborhoods. He said the weapons caused only one civilian casualty. But Human Rights Watch, a US-based group that tracks the weapons' use, said those numbers were misleading because they did not include cluster munitions fired by ground artillery, which are not technically "bombs" in Pentagon parlance.
US troops have removed about 600 unexploded cluster bomblets from Doura and other neighborhoods south of Baghdad, and expect to find at least another 600 in the coming weeks, said Captain Thomas Austin, 31, commanding officer of a US Army team that cleaned up the neighborhood around the Majids' house. In another area, he said, a little girl was killed when she brought soldiers one of the gray bomblets and it exploded; three soldiers were injured.
Austin said Doura was hit as US ground troops fired artillery at Iraqi antiaircraft guns and other weapons under an expressway bridge several hundred yards from the neighborhood.
"It looks like it was just a long round," he said, that overshot the target. "It's just tragic." He was sipping tea on the porch of an Iraqi family home a short drive from Doura; his hosts had insisted on serving lunch to his soldiers of the 326th Engineering Battalion, who had cleared 80 US cluster bombs from a field that morning and found several Iraqi weapons caches in a nearby school.
The United States appears to have used far fewer air-dropped cluster bombs in the two most recent wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, than it did in Kosovo and in the 1991 Gulf War.
According to Human Rights Watch, the United States dropped 1,228 cluster bombs in Afghanistan, containing 248,056 bomblets, killing or injuring at least 127 civilians; in the 1991 Gulf war, 2 million bomblets were dropped, causing 80 casualties among US-led forces alone.
"The Air Force and Navy have learned lessons from Kosovo and Afghanistan," said Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher with the group's Washington, D.C., office. "It doesn't seem the Army and the Marines have learned these lessons with surface-launched submunitions."
Unexploded weapons are a major concern in Baghdad, where an ammunition dump exploded Saturday, killing at least 12 civilians. The majority of the city's lethal ordnance are shells, missiles, and other explosives that the Iraqi military left in schools, parks, and other civilian areas. Austin's troops alone have collected 24 tons, the captain said. But deaths like those in the Majid family, involving US weapons, take an added toll on the tenuous US-Iraqi relationship, bolstering many Iraqis' perception that US troops have come to harm them.
In Doura, a neighborhood of quiet streets and modest walled gardens,
Ayad Rashid, a slight, almost emaciated man, sits trying to get his mind around his completely transformed life.
"I'm asking for God's help to carry this huge burden," he said in a soft, level voice.
"A Muslim can understand that this is pure fate," he said. "God will avenge us."
Anne Barnard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page A32 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2003.
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