GENEVA -- The massive use of cluster bombs by Israeli forces in the final days of the border war with Lebanon has spurred diplomatic momentum for talks on an accord to curb the use of the weapons, diplomatic and arms-control sources said.
Exploratory talks on such an initiative -- strongly backed by human rights groups -- were held quietly on the sidelines of an international meeting here last week by the 151 signatories to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, which bans the manufacture and use of anti-personnel mines. The United States is not a party to the treaty.
Sources familiar with the deliberations said support for the move has "picked up and broadened" since the idea was first floated at a U.N. arms-control forum a few weeks ago by Sweden, Austria, Mexico, New Zealand and the Vatican. The idea also is backed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"A core group is forming to find a real solution to the cluster-munitions problem," said a Western official who took part in the exploratory talks.
But resistance is expected from the United States, China and Russia, none of which has signed the existing land-mine treaty. Washington, which is suffering daily casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, is reportedly more interested in securing an agreement banning anti-vehicle mines.
The United Nations estimates that Israel dropped or fired some 1,800 cluster bombs during its war with Hezbollah, the vast majority during the final three days when a cease-fire was imminent. Those bombs contained more than 1 million bomblets, many of which failed to explode and remain a menace to civilians.
David Shearer, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon, said last week that the bomblets had killed or wounded an average of three persons a day since the war ended, many of them children.
"The Israeli Defense Forces have some explaining to do about the military necessity of firing so many cluster munitions into populated areas with the cease-fire in sight," said Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"They've given no indication what the military value of doing that was. And it's becoming increasingly important for them to justify why they did that, especially given the results that mine-clearance teams have seen in southern Lebanon."
Senior Israeli officials have stressed to U.N. officials and human rights groups that the cluster bombs are a legal weapon and were used in accordance with international standards of warfare, according to one source.
But the Israeli daily Ha'aretz has reported strong criticism of their use by some IDF officers.
"What we did was insane and monstrous. We covered entire towns in cluster bombs," the newspaper quoted the head of an IDF rocket unit in Lebanon as saying.
The use of the weapons can be considered illegal under international humanitarian law if it does not serve a clear military purpose, according to international jurists.