Civilian casualties in war against Iraq


December 14, 2003|By Kathy Lally

What the United States called a campaign of shock and awe against Saddam Hussein's Iraq is being criticized by Human Rights Watch as an invasion that used two "misguided" military tactics, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths.

The report by HRW, a human rights group based in New York, criticized the United States and Britain for using cluster weapons in populated areas and for 50 bombing strikes that were intended to kill Iraq's leadership but instead killed civilians.

Cluster bombs killed or injured more than 1,000 civilians, according to HRW estimates. The report also criticized Iraq for using human shields and placing military objects near schools and hospitals.

"Coalition forces generally tried to avoid killing Iraqis who weren't taking part in combat," Kenneth Roth, HRW executive director said in releasing the report Friday. "But the deaths of hundreds of civilians still could have been prevented."

Following are excerpts from the 147-page report, "Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq." It can be found in its entirety at

U.S.-led coalition forces took precautions to spare civilians and, for the most part, made efforts to uphold their legal obligations. Human Rights Watch nevertheless identified practices that led to civilian casualties in the air war, ground war and post-conflict period.

The widespread use of cluster munitions, especially by U.S. and U.K. ground forces, caused at least hundreds of civilian casualties. Cluster munitions, which are large weapons containing dozens or hundreds of submunitions, endanger civilians because of their broad dispersal, or "footprint," and the high number of submunitions that do not explode on impact. U.S. Central Command reported that it used 10,782 cluster munitions, which could contain at least 1.8 million submunitions.

The British used an additional 70 air-launched and 2,100 ground-launched cluster munitions, containing 113,190 submunitions. Although cluster munition strikes are particularly dangerous in populated areas, U.S. and U.K. ground forces repeatedly used these weapons in attacks on Iraqi positions in residential neighborhoods. ...

Many of the civilian casualties from the air war occurred during U.S. attacks targeting senior Iraqi leaders. The United States used an unsound targeting methodology that relied on intercepts of satellite phones and inadequate corroborating intelligence.

Thuraya satellite phones provide geo-coordinates that are accurate only to within a 100-meter (328-foot) radius; therefore, the United States could not determine the origin of a call to a degree of accuracy greater than a 31,400-square-meter area. ...

All of the 50 acknowledged attacks targeting Iraqi leadership failed. While they did not kill a single targeted individual, the strikes killed and injured dozens of civilians. ...

Coalition airstrikes on preplanned fixed targets apparently caused few civilian casualties, and U.S. and U.K. air forces generally avoided civilian infrastructure. ...

Explosive remnants of war caused hundreds of civilian casualties during and after major hostilities and continue to do so today. The coalition left behind many tens of thousands of cluster munition "duds," i.e. submunitions that did not explode on impact and which then became de facto landmines.

If the average failure rate were 5 percent, the number of cluster [submunitions] coalition forces reported using would leave about 90,000 duds. ...

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces abandoned staggering quantities of arms and ammunition that have injured or killed civilians searching for playthings or scraps to sell or reuse. ...

Significant civilian casualties occurred in the air war in Iraq despite the use of a high percentage of precision weapons. Of the 29,199 bombs dropped during the war by the United States and United Kingdom, nearly two-thirds (19,040) were precision-guided munitions. In the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991, 8 percent of all bombs dropped were PGMs; in Yugoslavia in 1999 approximately one-third were PGMs; in Afghanistan in 2002 approximately 65 percent were PGMs. ...

On April 7, a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer aircraft dropped four 2,000-pound satellite-guided joint direct attack munitions on a house in the Mansour district of Baghdad. The attack killed an estimated 18 civilians.

U.S. intelligence indicated that Saddam Hussein and perhaps one or both of his sons were meeting in Mansour. The information was reportedly based on a communications intercept of a Thuraya satellite phone. Forty-five minutes later, the area was rubble.

This was the most publicized of the leadership strikes. The U.S. military lauded the short turnaround time "from sensor to shooter," the time it takes from development of information to when the strike is executed. "From start to finish, it took 45 minutes from the word that Saddam Hussein and other leaders may have entered the building until the bombs hit the structure," said Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

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