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US death weapons used in Iraq

by Parmenides Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003 at 8:09 PM

These are some of the death weapons used by the bush nightmare clique to kill civilians in Iraq and other countries. They are probably made right down the street from you. Americans must give up their denial of complicity in the manufacturing of these weapons which cause untold grief and horror on their victims. We must recognize that life everywhere is precious and stop trying to obliterate it wherever our foreign policy descends.

Companion paper to Continuing collateral damage: the health and environment costs of war on Iraq 2003

The question of the legality of inhumane weapons used during the 2003 Iraq conflict

Cluster weapons

Definition: Cluster weapons can be air-dropped from a plane (cluster bomb), or fired and released from a missile, a rocket or an artillery projectile. They consist of two parts: a container (or dispenser) and submunitions – also called ‘bomblets’ – which are explosive projectiles designed to separate and spread once released from the dispenser. Like landmines, cluster submunitions can be anti-personnel (AP) – with the aim to kill or maim army personnel, and anti-tank (AT) – i.e. armour-piercing. There are also combined-effects munitions (CEM), which combine the properties of an anti-tank bomblet and those of an incendiary weapon.

Type of injuries: It is the “fragmentation effect” which is responsible for deaths and injuries, when fragments of the exploding munition, or stones and little objects blown by the blast wave (secondary fragmentation) hit and penetrate the human body. Fragmentation is not a side effect but an intended design objective of cluster weapons, and manufacturers generally seek to perfect the fragmentation of the outer casings of submunitions in order to increase the lethality of their weapons. Fragmentation wounds are small but the internal damage is devastating. Fragments travel through the skin and muscles and hit a bone, sending pressure waves into the body and causing internal bleeding. Fragments of broken bones can also lodge themselves in tissues, arteries and organs and intensify the bleeding. In addition to rapid loss of blood, internal bleeding can compress important organs such as the lungs and stop the circulation of blood or oxygen through the body. About 30% of victims die even with good life support equipment (Husum et al. 2000). Fragments lodged in the chest or in the skull are almost always fatal.

Status in international humanitarian law: There is no specific international treaty banning the use of cluster weapons. Therefore, cluster weapons are not illegal per se. However, because of their indiscriminate effect, the use of cluster munitions, especially in built-up areas, violates certain principles enshrined in Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, namely article 48 on the parties’ duty to protect civilian populations, and article 51.4 on the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks:

Art. 48: In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives

Art.51.4: Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:

(a) Those which are not directed at a specific military objective;

(b) Those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or

(c) Those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction

According to these articles, the Coalition’s use of cluster weapons during the conflict can be seen as ‘illegal’ under the Geneva Conventions for two reasons:

(1) Cluster weapons have an indiscriminate impact in space and in time. Unexploded bomblets remain on the ground after the conflict and constitute a health risk for anyone passing through the impact area, whether the original target was military or not. Therefore, their use contradicts the combatants’ duty to protect civilians.

Although the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is rightly involved in clearance of unexploded ordnance (UXO) throughout Iraq, the sheer number of UXO sites means that a significant amount of bomblets will remain a health hazard for years. In May 2003, the Humanitarian Operations Centre had located 1,102 Coalition cluster munitions strike sites (Landmine Action 2003a) – and despite extensive co-ordinated efforts from the CPA, the UN, Non-Governmental Organisations and humanitarian agencies, Iraqi civilians, Coalition soldiers, foreign journalists and UXO clearance personnel are still being wounded or killed by unexploded munitions every week. A spokesperson for Amnesty International London said: “these indiscriminate weapons leave a deadly legacy of de facto landmines that will kill and maim innocent civilians for years to come” (The Guardian 9.5.03).

(2) UK and US forces used cluster weapons in and around urban areas where civilians are bound to be the principal victims of cluster munitions (both on impact and in post-conflict UXO incidents). Indeed, the Landmine Monitor Report 2003 specified that “coalition use of cluster munitions has been confirmed in many populated areas throughout Iraq, including Baghdad, Basra, Hillah, Kirkuk, Mosul, Nasiriyah, and other cities and towns”. This is a direct breach of articles 48 and 51.4 of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, which establish the fundamental laws on the conduct of combatants in international armed conflicts.

Although international humanitarian law does not ban the use of cluster weapons, it is often believed that they should be made illegal on the basis of their long-term negative effects on health and reconstruction, which go well beyond the scope of the conflict’s objectives.

Depleted Uranium

Definition: Natural uranium is composed of different isotopes including uranium-235 and uranium-238. U-235 is fissile and used to produce nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, but as natural uranium contains only 0.7% of U-235, ‘enriched uranium’ needs to be created by extracting U-235 from natural uranium. What remains is called ‘depleted uranium’ as it is deprived of U-235 and contains about 99.8% of U-238. Large amounts of DU are left over waste from nuclear weapons production and from the nuclear energy industry. DU is extremely dense and heavy, and, when used for military applications, it is placed in armour (tanks and aircraft) because its hardness and density can defeat conventional armour-piercing ammunition. But it is also used in ammunition, especially anti-tank weapons, because it can penetrate heavy armour. Amounts used depend on the projectile (bullets, shells or bombs); it varies from 300 grams to 7 tonnes in the bunker-busters of the type dropped on Baghdad.

Health risks: After penetration, DU forms a powder which ignites spontaneously and burns, leaving a fine dust of uranium oxides which can be inhaled or ingested and is chemically toxic. DU is also radioactive and therefore radiotoxic, although it has a very low activity. Health effects of DU “depend on the route and magnitude of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, skin contact or wounds)” (Unep 2003a).

Chemical toxicity: the kidney is the organ which is the most sensitive to the chemical toxicity of DU, but 50mg of uranium oxides would have to be inhaled to cause interstitial nephritis (Holdstock 2000). Thus, only individuals going into a tank or bunker recently hit by DU munitions and inhaling significant amounts of dust would be susceptible to undergo DU poisoning.

Radiotoxicity: DU is radioactive and has the potential to damage the DNA and, in the long term, cause cancer. However, DU is only weakly radioactive (its half-life is about 4.5 billion years). Thus, external radiation (from emission of beta and gamma particles) is not likely to cause cancer, except in cases of prolonged exposure to large quantities of DU (Unep 2003a). But even in that case, the main risk comes from internal radiation, i.e. alpha-particle emission from inhaled dust which becomes embedded in the lungs and can eventually lead to lung cancer. Professor Brian Spratt, chairman of the Royal Society working group which produced a report entitled “The Health Hazards of Depleted Uranium” released in March 2002, said:

most soldiers and civilians will not be exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium. However, in certain circumstances the exposures may be high and there would be a risk of heavy metal poisoning that could lead to long-term kidney damage for a few soldiers, as well as the increased risk of lung cancer” (Royal Society 2002)

If DU played a part in the reported increase in the number of Iraqi cancers and birth defects and/or in the illness dubbed “Gulf War Syndrome” among US Gulf War veterans, no comprehensive scientific study has ever been carried out to prove it, and therefore the precise health risks of DU are yet unknown (WHO 2003). This explains why, in March 2003, the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, denied that depleted uranium was a health hazard, saying there was “not the slightest scientific evidence” to suggest that DU could be toxic (The Guardian 25.4.03). But The Royal Society urged the Ministry of Defence to publish details of where and how much DU was used. As a result, the MoD announced that soldiers returning from the Gulf will be offered urine tests to check levels of DU in their bodies. In August, The Sunday Mirror announced the Government’s decision that all veterans were to benefit from a new medical test which could determine the health effects of DU. It said “scientists” have “developed a way of tracing even minute amounts of depleted uranium in their bodies” and that “all 45,000 troops who served in the latest Iraq conflict have automatically been given the right to be tested” (The Sunday Mirror, 3.8.03).

Status in international humanitarian law: No international treaty currently bans the production or use of DU weapons. Indeed, DU weapons are not chemical or biological weapons, therefore they cannot be considered to be illegal under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1996 Chemical Weapons Convention. They are not nuclear weapons either and thus cannot be banned under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However:

(1) the use of DU weapons goes against established principles of humanitarian law, notably principles of the Geneva Conventions and some UN guidelines relative to:

- the protection of civilian populations (See Articles 48 and 51.4 above)

- the limitation of unnecessary human suffering (Art.35.2)

- the limitation of damage to the environment (Art. 35.3 and 55.1)

Art. 35.2: It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering

Art. 35.3: It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment

Art. 55.1: Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population

Until scientific studies establish the precise health impact of DU on the human body, armed forces should refrain from using DU weapons on the battlefield, and especially in built-up areas, for fear of committing potential “war crimes” (Doug Rokke, The Sunday Mirror 3.8.03). The effects of depleted uranium are indiscriminate and even when used on military targets, DU weapons leave a chemical and radioactive toxic residue which can spread over large areas.

As for the environmental damage, several studies by the UN Environment Programme (Unep) highlight the negative environmental effects of DU. Through studies in Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Unep found that contamination levels are generally very low, limited to a couple of metres around the impact of the projectile, and do not constitute an immediate radioactive or toxic hazard for the environment or human health (Unep 2003b). But the report on Bosnia and Herzegovina, published in March 2003, while confirming low levels of ground contamination, found proof of groundwater contamination (seven years after the conflict) and recommended the use of alternative water sources. Also, Unep scientists detected air contamination in some of the sites studied and recommended a decontamination of the buildings in use on these sites. If damage to the environment is thus proved, the use of DU should be contrary to article 35.3 of Protocol I.

(2) after NATO's use of DU weapons in the Kosovo campaign in 1999, the Council of Europe parliamentarians called for a world ban on the production, testing, use and sale of DU weapons, asserting that NATO's use of DU would have "long term effects on health and quality of life in South-East Europe, affecting future generations" (Council of Europe 24.1.01).

(3) the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities issued two Resolutions (United Nations 1996a; United Nations 1997) on the need to stop the production and use of weapons of mass destruction, including DU weapons:

“The Sub-Commission […] urges all States to be guided in their national policies by the need to curb the production and the spread of weapons of mass destruction or with indiscriminate effect, in particular nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, fuel-air bombs, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weaponry and weaponry containing depleted uranium” (United Nations 1996b)

Although DU weapons are not illegal, their use goes against basic principles of international humanitarian law as (1) they have the potential to contaminate groundwater reserves and pollute the air (2) they have the potential to cause cancer and have other long-term negative health effects on combatants and civilians. Moreover, the use of anti-tank DU weapons and bunker buster DU-tipped bombs on above ground civilian targets in the centre of Baghdad during the war increased urban populations’ exposure to DU, which can only exacerbate the potential negative effects of DU on civilians. This is why many people believe that DU should be made illegal under international customary law.


Definition: Landmines cannot be aimed: they lie under ground surface until activated by an individual or a vehicle. They are indiscriminate weapons. An anti-personnel (AP) landmine is "designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill one or more persons" (Mine Ban Treaty). Anti-tank (AT) landmines can only be exploded by more than 100 kilograms of pressure.

Type of injuries: Iraqi forces used AP blast mines which “cause foot, leg, and groin injuries and secondary infections usually result in amputation” (ICBL 2003) as well as AP fragmentation mines, which “project hundreds of fragments at ballistic speed of up to 50 meters resulting in fragmentation wounds. Some fragmentation mines contain a primary charge to lift the mine above the ground (about 1 to 1.5 meters) before detonating which can injure an adult's abdomen, genitals and take off a child's head” (ICBL 2003). The International Campaign to Ban Landmimes explains that “those who survive the initial blast usually require amputations, long hospital stays, and extensive rehabilitative services” but that “many others die in the fields from loss of blood or lack of transport to get medical help”.

Landmines and International Humanitarian Law: Because they are indiscriminate and responsible for incessant fatalities in many post-conflict regions of the world (“mine deaths and injuries in the past few decades total in the hundreds of thousands”, ICBL 2003), landmines acquired their own convention: the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition on the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on their Destruction (or Ottawa Treaty) bans signatory states to produce, acquire, use, stockpile or transfer anti-personnel mines or even to assist a State Party to the Treaty in doing such things. The UK ratified the Ottawa Treaty in July 1998. The US and Iraq have not signed the treaty (NB: Anti-Tank Mines are not banned by the Ottawa Treaty). So absurdly, no party actually violated the law since British forces did not use landmines; US forces used command-detonated Claymore directional fragmentation mines, which are permitted under the Mine Ban Treaty (Landmine Action 2003b); and Iraq used all sorts of landmines but has not signed the Ottawa Treaty.

Council of Europe (24.1.01) “Assembly calls for ban on weapons containing uranium and plutonium”, Press Release,

The Guardian (25.4.03) “Gulf troops face tests for cancer”

The Guardian (9.5.03) “Pentagon challenged over cluster bomb deaths”

Holdstock, Douglas (2000) “Depleted Uranium”, in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol.25

Husum, H. Gilbert, M. Wisborg, T. (2000) Save Lives, Save Limbs: Life Support for Victims of Mines, Wars and Accidents, Third World Network (quoted in UK Working Group on Landmines (2000) Cluster Bombs: the Military Effectiveness and Impact on Civilians of Cluster Bombs, p.20

ICBL – International Campaign to Ban Landmines (2003)

Landmine Action (2003a) Landmine Monitor Report 2003: Toward a Mine-Free World World (Data provided by the US Army Corps of Engineers at the Humanitarian Operations Centre, Kuwait City, May 2003)

Landmine Action (2003b) Landmine Monitor Report 2003: Toward a Mine-Free (From US Central Command, “CENTCOM Operation Iraqi Freedom Briefing” 31 March 2003)

Protocol I (1977) Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, 8 June.

Royal Society (2002) “Depleted uranium might damage kidneys of some soldiers”, Media Release, 12 March.

The Sunday Mirror (3.8.03) “Troops win right for Gulf War syndrome test”

United Nations (1996a) Resolution 1996/16, 29 August, E/CN.4/SUB.2/RES/1996/16

United Nations (1996b) Press Release, 4 September, HR/CN/755

United Nations (1997) Resolution 1997/36, 28 August, E/CN.4/SUB.2/RES/1997/36

Unep (2003a) “Depleted Uranium Awareness Leaflet”, September

Unep (2003b) Bosnia and Herzegovina: A United Nations Environmental Programme Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment on Depleted Uranium

WHO (2003) “Depleted Uranium” Fact Sheet N°257, revised in January 2003

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MOAB bombs away Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003 at 8:10 PM
Lockheed Martin makes these death weapons Parmenides Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003 at 8:18 PM
Lockheed Martin NYSE Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003 at 8:29 PM
weapons of terror Sheepdog Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003 at 12:09 AM
Masters of War Dylan Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003 at 2:50 AM
All that needless mayhem in Iraq Cruise Missile Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003 at 2:59 AM

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