WASHINGTON -- U.S. Air Force planes and Army artillery that showered millions of bomblets on Iraqi troops left a lethal battlefield residue that killed at least 14 Americans and wounded more than 100 soldiers during the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm, according to U.S. military officials.
A Newsday investigation revealed that the cluster munitions -- explosives ranging in size from a 35mm roll of film to a softball -- caused more U.S. casualties in some instances than Iraqi troops during the four-day ground war.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and senior Army commanders have presented the cluster munitions operation as one in a series of success stories emerging from Desert Storm.
There was no hint in Mr. Cheney's report of the bomblet dud rate and its impact on U.S. casualties. But interviews with members of Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's staff and battlefield commanders showed U.S. soldiers were killed and maimed during combat and during lulls in the fighting when individuals and groups either stumbled on or "played" with bomblets despite repeated warnings to leave such battlefield munitions untouched.
"There is something about them [bomblets] that just begs you to pick them up," said Maj. Jim O'Donnell, who told how some 1st Mechanized Infantry Division soldiers played catch with the explosives, wounding three in one incident.
According to the U.S. Army Missile Command at Huntsville, Ala., more than 11,000 of the rockets were fired, covering the battlefield with more than 7.1 million bomblets. While all bomblets are designed to explode on impact, there was a predictable dud rate of between 2 percent and 5 percent for each pod, Army spokesman Dave Harris said.
VII Corps commanders estimated that more than 356,000 unexploded bomblets littered the battlefield.
Officers of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division cited the Army's new DPICM (dual purpose improved conventional munition), fired 155mm howitzers, as causing more than half of the casualties in their units. Thousands of DPICM were fired, but there no official estimate of unexploded bomblets.
Mr. Cheney's spokesman, Pete Williams, said the issue of the casualties was still being studied.
But Army records show that during ground fighting between Feb. 24 and March 2, at least 14 Americans were killed because of "bomblet explosion" or other similar "ordnance explosion." There is no evidence of Iraqi munitions' causing any of the 14 deaths, according to U.S. sources. After March 2, another three soldiers died in "bomblet explosions."