- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Poorly targeted “decapitation strikes” and the use of cluster bombs have caused hundreds of civilian casualties in Iraq that could have been avoided, a leading human rights group says in a report to be released today.

The Human Rights Watch report, titled “Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq,” does credit the U.S. military with extensive efforts to prevent civilian causalities.

Much of the report, compiled after five weeks of research in Iraq, deals with the use of cluster bombs.

“Over and over, officers in the field told us that they wanted alternatives [to the cluster rockets],” said Bonnie Docherty. “They were horrified by the number of civilian deaths they caused.”

A Pentagon spokesman said, “U.S. military forces went to extraordinary lengths to avoid unnecessary human casualties and collateral damage.

“Coalition forces used cluster munitions in very specific cases against valid military targets and only when it was a military necessity,” the spokesman said on the condition of anonymity. “It was a judicious use of force.”

During the three-week-long war, when Army ground troops more than 10 miles out took fire from a populated area, they typically responded with cluster bomb rockets fired from the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), the report said.

One volley from the MLRS comprised six rockets, each fitted with 644 grenades about the size of a plum. An explosion covered a vast area, killing or injuring anyone within the “0.6 mile footprint,” as often as not civilians, the report said.

In addition, the bomblets have a 16 percent “dud” rate, which means that thousands of unexploded bomblets are scattered throughout Iraqi cities.

Human Rights Watch said at least six U.S. or British soldiers have been killed since the war ended, the result of stepping on the unexploded ordinance.

“On this issue, the military’s interests and human rights interests coincide,” said Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon analyst and co-author of the report.

He said that once an area was cluster bombed, officers said it was considered too dangerous, forcing troops to maneuver around the area.

He said the Marines, by contrast, used close-air helicopter support when facing similar situations, taking out hostile positions, avoiding civilian casualties and leaving the area uncontaminated with unexploded bomblets.

He said the Army is reviewing its tactics, and is working to create bomblets that self-destruct after a time if they fail to explode on impact.

The report also found fault with efforts to kill senior Iraqi officials with satellite-guided bombs.

In 50 acknowledged decapitation strikes, not one targeted Iraqi leader was killed. But in four strikes detailed by in the report, at least 100 Iraqi civilians were killed.

“Zero for 50. Fifty targets survived,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “You are taking a precision weapon and turning it into an indiscriminate weapon, because you don’t know what you are shooting at.”

Mr. Roth said that the rules of war require that the shooter be “reasonably certain” about the target.

“Zero for 50 is abject failure and too imprecise to meet the standard of reasonable certainty,” he said.

Human Rights Watch officials would not be more precise in civilian casualty figures than to say “hundreds,” although it said an Associated Press estimate of 3,420 was a good “base line.”

The Pentagon spokesman said use of human shields and other war crimes by the Iraqis “contributed to a great number of the civilian deaths.”


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