Bombing Ends but Not Danger
Looking down as he walked toward home through a scrubby field on the edge of Baghdad, 11-year-old Amer Mahmoud spotted the small, reddish-brown cylinder on the ground just as his foot touched it.
The bomblet exploded, leaving his left leg hanging by bloody shreds. He woke up hours later in a hospital, after an emergency amputation of his leg just below the knee.
“Everything in my life has changed,” said Amer, a brown-eyed boy so small and slight he looked closer to 7 or 8. He spoke in a halting whisper from his cot in crowded, chaotic Al Noor hospital in northern Baghdad on Monday, a day after the explosion. “I cannot see now what my future will be.”
Nearly two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis are still being killed and maimed daily by previously unexploded ordnance in their cities and towns -- much of it in the form of cluster munitions, a class of weapons whose use has been denounced by human rights groups as a cruelly random scourge on civilians, particularly children.
At a Pentagon briefing on Monday, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had “not heard of injuries” from cluster bombs but could not say whether such bombs had been used in residential areas. Another Pentagon official confirmed that cluster bombs were used in Iraq but could not say whether they were used in Baghdad.
Cluster munitions are designed to break up in the air and scatter bomblets over a wide area, and critics say they have a high failure rate that renders them a hazard for months or even years to come.
“They’re like land mines that floated through the air,” said Dr. Geert Van Moorter, who works with a Belgian medical charity in Iraq.
American military officials have asserted that such munitions are legal and serve legitimate military purposes.
Though cluster bombs are not specifically prohibited under existing treaties and conventions, advocates of a ban argue that they meet the criteria for weapons whose use runs counter to generally accepted humanitarian standards.
“You can’t use a weapon that is indiscriminate by nature, and you have to distinguish between civilian and military targets,” said Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group that issued a statement this month denouncing the reported use of cluster munitions in civilian areas. “We think if you use these things in neighborhoods, you may well run afoul of international law.”
Already, evidence points to the use of cluster weapons in densely populated residential areas of Baghdad and several other Iraqi cities.
More than a dozen patients and their families interviewed in recent days described bombing raids consistent with the use of cluster weapons.
They spoke of rapid series of small but powerful explosions that seemed to come from all directions simultaneously, with many unexploded canister-shaped objects scattered on the ground afterward.
Some Iraqis showed scraps of what they said were parachutes under which the weapons had wafted to earth, and described objects sighted afterward: little balls in bright colors, sometimes with a ribbon-like band projecting from them -- particularly attractive to children, who think they might be some kind of toy -- and black and silver cylinders a little smaller than a soft-drink can.
Iraqi and foreign doctors also describe a pattern of injuries they say are characteristic of those caused by cluster bomblets that did not detonate on impact but exploded later: gaping wounds to the hands, upper bodies and faces of those who picked them up; severe leg and foot injuries, often requiring amputation, to those who stepped on one.
The upward force of the blast also typically maims the genitals, said Van Moorter, whose group has documented hundreds of cases of what it believes are cluster-bomb injuries over the last three weeks.
In half a dozen neighborhoods in Baghdad, unexploded bomblets have been found on streets and sidewalks, in vacant lots and walled gardens, on rooftops and even hanging from trees, residents say. In some parts of the city, many can still be seen scattered about.
“Don’t step, don’t step!” an old woman in the Baghdad slum neighborhood of Baladiyat called out, catching a visitor’s arm. She pointed to an arc of small craters in the street, one containing a small, blackish cylinder. Bricks had been piled several deep on all sides of it to protect against a potential blast.
Responding to appeals from neighborhood leaders and civilians, U.S. troops -- first the Marines, who initially secured the eastern part of the capital, and now the Army soldiers who replaced them -- have moved in to clear some areas thickly sowed with unexploded ordnance, including a large park near one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in the heart of Baghdad. But no large-scale or systematic sweep of the city has begun.
In some neighborhoods, people are taking matters into their own hands. After consulting with the imam of their local mosque, the men of Baladiyat embarked on an amateur bomb-disposal campaign.
In a trash-strewn vacant lot, they demonstrated their crude but effective method: pile homemade sandbags around the suspicious object, then drop a wad of flaming paper through a small hole at the top of the sandbag pile. Then get back -- quickly.
“Yes, it’s dangerous, but it’s more dangerous to leave them for our children to pick up,” said Taher Zaid Mohammed, a 36-year-old unemployed driver who said he had helped blow up several dozen bomblets in this manner.
“I have five children, and my wife said, ‘You must do something,’ ” he said. “And, anyway, who is going to come and help us?”
However, other makeshift efforts to clear away explosives may only delay disaster. Ahmed Moussa proudly described how he had taken a bucket of water and washed three suspicious-looking canisters down a storm drain.
Doctors say another hazard has been bomblets buried amid the huge heaps of garbage that have piled up all over the capital since trash collection ceased with the onset of bombing. It has not yet resumed. People have been raking garbage into piles to burn it, and hospitals reported at least half a dozen cases of explosions when the trash was either being gathered or set aflame.
There has been no complete and reliable count of civilian deaths and injuries to date from cluster munitions and other ordnance that exploded belatedly, although several nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups are trying to make a reckoning.
They are hampered, they say, by the continued hazards of travel in some areas of Iraq, and by the fact that some hospitals lost records in the enormous wave of looting that followed the government’s fall.
One fledgling nongovernmental group, the Washington-based Iraq Victims Compensation Campaign, hopes to complete a countrywide survey in the next two weeks. Its investigators visited the town of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad near the site of ancient Babylon, where hundreds of cluster-bomb injuries were reported.
Human Rights Watch said it also intends to try to compile a nationwide count.
Van Moorter’s group, Medical Aid for the Third World, intends to present its findings to a human rights lawyer for possible legal action in Belgium against allied military officials.
Neighborhood leaders are trying to spread the word of the bomblets’ dangers, especially to children who come across them while playing. But adults also have been among the victims.
“I shouted to him, ‘Don’t! It’s dangerous!’ ” said Ali Abdul Wahab, 28, who was standing about 6 feet away when his 31-year-old friend Kemal Abed Jarallah picked up a small, yellow object spotted in the street on Friday.
It blew up, killing Jarallah, a clerk. He had a pregnant wife and one small child.
More often, cluster bombs maim rather than kill. Because of that, and the severity of the injuries, these cases are a heavy burden on what is already a barely functioning medical system.
Doctors say infections have sometimes forced them to amputate limbs shredded by cluster bombs that might have been saved with quick and effective treatment.
“So dirty, the wounds, and while the bombing was still going on, it was sometimes days before people could get to us,” said Dr. Riyadh Zair, an emergency physician at Baghdad’s Kadhimiya Hospital.
Among the patients for whom he could do little was 5-year-old Ali Mustafa Hassan, who lost both eyes in an explosion in the garden of his central Baghdad home on April 14.
He was playing with four other children when his mother, Mona, heard the blast and rushed out to find the children, all under the age of 6, bleeding from head, hand and arm wounds. She said one of the children told her that Ali’s 3-year-old cousin, Hassan Ali Hussein, had just picked up something shiny off the ground.
As she spoke, Ali, naked except for a diaper and partially covered with a flowered sheet, wailed through the heavy bandages that swathed most of his head. His mother made a gesture as if to pluck out her own eyes, which were swollen with weeping.
“I would take them and give them to my son,” she said in a grief-hoarsened voice. “Take my eyes, take them! Who can watch their child like this, and live?”
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.