Washington: Hundreds of civilians were killed by coalition cluster bombs and air strikes designed to “decapitate” the Iraqi leadership, according to a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued Friday.
The report said the high costs in civilian casualties caused by the two tactics may have violated international law.
Although acknowledging that US-led coalition forces in Iraq generally tried to comply with international humanitarian law, the report concludes that US ground forces were too eager to use cluster munitions in populated areas, and that 50 “decapitation” attacks failed to hit their targets, but caused dozens of civilian deaths and injuries.
“Coalition forces generally tried to avoid killing Iraqis who weren’t taking part in combat,” said Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director. “But the deaths of hundreds of civilians could have been prevented.”
The 147-page report, Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq, also details numerous violations of international humanitarian law by Iraqi forces, including their use of human shields, the abuse of Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, the use of anti-personnel land mines, and the deployment of weapons and other military equipment in mosques, hospitals, archaeological and cultural sites.
The Iraqi military frequently failed to take adequate precautions to protect civilians from military operations, and its practice of donning civilian clothes inevitably put civilians at risk.
International humanitarian law requires that armed forces take all possible precautions to avoid harming civilians. It also calls for combatants to refrain from launching indiscriminate raids or attacks where the anticipated harm to civilians exceeds the possible military gain.
The report is based primarily on the research of three experts who conducted battle damage assessment (BDA) missions in the main areas of fighting in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, where civilian deaths have been reported, and sites where cluster bombs were used. Hospital and US military records were also studied.
At the sites, the team examined the ballistic evidence and interviewed coalition soldiers, residents and victims. Finding Iraqi soldiers to interview on specific battles revealed itself to be virtually impossible, due to the fact that they dispersed during the war.
The team did not try to estimate the total number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war. A census of 60 out of Iraq’s 124 hospitals conducted by The Associated Press immediately after the cessation of hostilities estimated that well over 3,420 civilians were killed, while the Los Angeles Times concluded that at least 1,700 civilians were killed and more than 8,000 more wounded in Baghdad after it surveyed 27 hospitals there.
London-based Medact, the British affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, concluded in a study released last month that between 5,700 and 7,356 civilians were killed between March 20 and May 1 as a result of hostilities. The AP also reported Wednesday that an effort by the Iraqi Health Ministry to conduct an assessment of the total number of casualties was suspended this week, allegedly on orders from the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
The Human Rights Watch report concluded that the use of cluster weapons, particularly by US and British ground forces, caused the most civilian casualties during the coalition’s military campaign in March and April 2003. US and British forces together used almost 13,000 cluster munitions, containing a total of nearly 2 million bomblets, that killed or wounded more than 1,000 civilians.
Most of the civilian casualties resulting from the air war occurred during a total of 50 US attacks that targeted the Iraqi leadership, including two high-profile attacks against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein himself, one of which killed 18 civilians and destroyed three homes in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. According to the report, each of the attacks missed their target, and Iraqis who spoke to HRW stated repeatedly that they believed the intended targets were not even present at the time of the strikes.
HRW found that the military’s “decapitation” strategy relied almost exclusively on intercepts of satellite phones backed up by “inadequate” corroborating intelligence. Thuraya satellite phones used by the Iraqi leadership provide geographical coordinates of only a 100-meter radius and thus US intelligence could not determine the origin of a call with a high degree of accuracy. Furthermore, the raids took place in areas of high population density.
“This flawed targeting strategy was compounded by a lack of effective assessment both prior to the attacks of the potential risks to civilians and after the attacks of their success and utility,” according to the report.
“The decapitation strategy was an utter failure on military grounds since it didn’t kill a single Iraqi in 50 attempts,” said Roth. “But it also failed on human rights grounds. It’s no good using a precise weapon if the target hasn’t been located precisely,” he added.
On the other hand, HRW found that coalition air strikes against pre-planned fixed targets caused few civilian casualties, and that US and British air forces generally avoided civilian infrastructure, although so-called “dual-use” targets that included electrical and media facilities were hit.
The report also praised the relative restraint on the part of the US Air Force in using cluster bombs, noting that the frequency of its use of such weapons has progressively declined from the 1999 Kosovo campaign and the 2001 Afghanistan war.
But US ground forces resorted much more readily to cluster munitions, according to Ross, who said they “need to learn the lesson that the air forces seems to have adopted: Cluster munitions cannot be used in populated areas without huge loss of civilian life.”
In a single day, US cluster munitions attacks in Hilla on March 31 killed at least 33 civilians and wounded 109, and caused high civilian casualties in Najaf and Nassariyah, as well. One hospital director told HRW that cluster munitions caused 90 percent of the civilian injuries that his hospital treated during the war. Moreover, the coalition is believed to have left behind many tens of thousands of cluster munition “duds” that did not explode on impact, but become de facto land mines that have already caused dozens of casualties.
The report also heavily criticized the coalition forces for failing to secure vast arsenals of weapons that were abandoned by Iraqi forces during the war.