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Officials: Hundreds of Iraqis Killed By Faulty Grenades

By Thomas Frank
Washington Bureau

June 22, 2003, 11:00 PM EDT

Washington -- Hundreds and possibly thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed or maimed by outdated, defective U.S. cluster weapons that lack a safety feature other countries have added, according to observers, news reports and officials.

U.S. cluster weapons fired during the war in March and April dispersed thousands of small grenades on battlefields and in civilian neighborhoods to destroy Iraqi troops and weapons systems.

But some types of the grenades fail to explode on impact as much as 16 percent of the time, according to official military figures. Battlefield commanders have reported failure rates as high as 40 percent.

Unexploded grenades remain potentially lethal for weeks and months after landing on the ground, where civilians can unwittingly pick them up or step on them. Many victims are children such as Ali Mustafa, 4, whose eyes were blown out when a grenade he played with near his Baghdad home in April exploded in his face.

The "dud rate" for cluster grenades can be reduced to less than 1 percent by installing secondary fuses that blow up or neutralize grenades that fail to explode on impact, according to defense contractors. In early 2001, the Pentagon said it would achieve that goal, but not until 2005. In the meantime, the military continues to use a vast arsenal of cluster grenades that fail to meet the new standard.

Former military officials and defense experts say the effort to improve the grenades was given a low priority and little funding.

"The Army is behind, and the Army is moving very slowly," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Davison, now president of the U.S. division of Israel Military Industries, which has made 60 million grenades with secondary fuses. "It's a sorry situation that we didn't have secondary fuses on the artillery submunitions that were fired in the last several wars."

Britain, which joined the United States in the fight to oust Saddam Hussein, fired 2,000 artillery cluster weapons in the war. All were equipped with Israeli-made grenades with secondary fuses and a 2 percent dud rate, the British Defense Ministry said.

The United States fired cluster weapons as bombs, rockets and artillery shells, which open like a clam to scatter hundreds of grenades over an area as large as several city blocks. Almost all of the U.S. grenades had one standard fuse, according to military records and officials. A notable exception was a type of cluster bomb carrying newly designed -- and expensive -- grenades with infrared sensors that seek armored vehicles and self-destruct if none is found.

As small as medicine bottles and often draped with short ribbons, unexploded grenades attract children who mistake them for toys. On the April day when Ali Mustafa lost his eyes -- an explosion that injured his brother and friend -- the three were taken to a Baghdad hospital where two other youths were being treated for cluster grenade wounds.

Ali Hamed, 10, of Baghdad, had his stomach ripped open and bowel perforated when a grenade that he and friends were playing with blew up.

Shrapnel ripped into the buttocks of Saef Sulaiman, 17, after his younger brother brought a live grenade into their Baghdad home. Sulaiman said his 8-month-old sister, who had been resting on the living-room floor, was killed in the explosion.

Ali Hamed's mother said two friends of her son's were killed when Ali was hurt.

Another Iraqi child who picked up a grenade survived when Army Sgt. Troy Jenkins took it from her. The grenade then exploded. Jenkins was killed.

The military has not said how many troops have been killed or injured by unexploded grenades. But the 1991 Gulf War revealed their danger.

A congressional report found that grenade duds killed 22 U.S. troops -- 6 percent of the total American fatalities -- and injured 58 as forces swept the Iraqi military out of areas in Kuwait's desert that the Americans had just shelled.

The Army said in a post-war report that "the large number of dud U.S. submunitions ... significantly impeded operations."

A U.S. mine-clearance company found 118,000 unexploded cluster grenades in just one of the seven Kuwaiti battlefield sectors, according to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative agency. Military documents and officials estimated the dud rate at 8 percent to 40 percent.

The total number of unexploded grenades in the region was estimated at 1.2 million by Human Rights Watch, which opposes cluster weapons. It estimated fatalities at 1,220 Kuwaitis and 400 Iraqi civilians.

Forced to confront the problem of unexploded cluster grenades, the military focused on training U.S. troops to clear them and avoid them in the battlefield instead of making improvements to reduce their number, defense experts said.

"We didn't do a whole lot that cost a whole lot of money," said Richard Johnson, a defense consultant and retired Army colonel who spent 30 years working in ammunition acquisition programs.

The Pentagon acknowledged in a 2000 report on cluster weapons that "a significant percentage of these submunitions may not detonate reliably." The report said "corrective measures are under way" but said the Pentagon would not retrofit the cluster grenade inventory, which an earlier report said numbered 1 billion.

Retrofitting the entire grenade stockpile was deemed too costly, at $11 billion to $12 billion, according to a 1996 Army report. But the report also noted that cleaning up dud grenades was so costly that in certain limited conflicts "costs for retrofit of our ammunition might be recovered from the elimination of future cleanup costs."

The military has been trying to improve grenade reliability, but technological problems and the complexity of cluster weapons have caused delays. "I don't think anybody is happy with the current fusing," one Army official said.

Two people close to the Navy said recently that reports of civilian casualties have reignited what they called a stalled Navy effort to modify one type of grenade considered notoriously unreliable by experts. A military report indicates 36,179 such grenades were used in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Stephen Lee, who manages an Army program to upgrade cluster-weapon safety, said, "There have been major improvements; it's just that they're not fielded yet."

Speaking about a type of grenade used widely in Iraq, Lee said, "There really is no difference in terms of the dud rate between the first Gulf War and the most recent conflict in Iraq."

Experts say the military has focused on building new precision weapons systems. "Safety and collateral damage are not as high a priority as mission effectiveness," said David Ochmanek, a RAND Corp. defense analyst who was a deputy assistant defense secretary in the Clinton administration.

The Defense Department defended its recent use of cluster weapons in Iraq. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blamed the civilian casualties on Hussein for deliberately placing Iraqi weapons in populated areas where they would draw return fire. "War is not a tidy affair. It's a very ugly affair," Myers said in April. "And this enemy had no second thoughts about putting its own people at risk."

The U.S. military has known about the dangers of the unexploded grenades for decades, since the Vietnam War, when Viet Cong fighters used unexploded grenades as land mines against the U.S. forces that fired them by the millions.

In the three decades since, the duds have killed thousands in Laos, says the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross, human rights groups and the European Parliament have campaigned to ban cluster-weapon use until nations agree to improve grenade reliability, avoid firing them in populated areas and regulate their cleanup.

The United States did little in the 1970s and 1980s to improve the reliability of the grenades, said Darold Griffin, former deputy director for research and development in the Army Material Command. "Some felt duds were an asset on the battlefield. You fire them into an area where an enemy is, and having some duds decreases his freedom of movement," he said.

Countries that have fought wars on their own soil, most notably Israel, have made improvements, out of fear that duds would harm their own civilians and under public pressure. Israeli-made grenades now have a dud rate of less than 1 percent, said Davison, the Israeli Military Industries official. The company has sold tens of millions of grenades to Britain, Germany, Denmark and Finland, and to Switzerland, which has proposed international standards to improve grenade reliability.

Sweden also requires its cluster grenades to have secondary fuses, said Lt. Col. Olof Carelius of the Swedish Armed Forces.

Grenades fail to detonate mostly when their landing impact is lessened, because they fall on a soft surface or sloped terrain, or they collide in midair and lose speed. The Pentagon says many grenades fail only 2 percent of the time but acknowledges dud rates are difficult to ascertain and vary widely depending on conditions. It says the weapons are ideal for hitting spread-out targets like troop formations and tank columns.

But the consequences of failure rates are magnified by the numbers of grenades used: To destroy one air-defense system covering 100 square yards requires 75 rockets, each carrying 644 grenades -- a total of 48,300. The 16 percent failure rate listed by the Pentagon produces 7,728 unexploded grenades, scattering them over 600 square yards.

Bonnie Docherty, part of a Human Rights Watch team that recently spent a month surveying battle damage throughout Iraq, said she "saw evidence of thousands of submunitions in or near populated areas."

Cluster-weapon use was "significantly more extensive than in Afghanistan," where the United States dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 grenades in a six-month span, according to Human Rights Watch.

A report by the Air Force in late April said U.S. aircraft over Iraq dropped 1,714 cluster bombs containing about 275,000 grenades. No report is available on the number of ground-fired cluster weapons, but throughout the war launchers could be seen firing grenade-carrying rockets.

Efforts to improve grenades stalled when an Army contractor, KDI Precision Products Inc. of Cincinnati, proved unable to mass-produce a secondary fuse for new grenades. A contract signed in 1987 was canceled in 2000.

"It's not an easy technical problem to solve," KDI president Eric Guerrazzi said. He and others say the program might have succeeded with more funding, perhaps to pay a competing firm to work as well on developing the fuses.

Spending on munitions research and procurement dropped from $18 billion a year during the 1980s to about $6 billion a year after the Cold War.

"The funding for R and D [research and development] in the Army was minimal, and fusing was the last on the list," said Bruce Mueller, a former Army lieutenant colonel who managed the fuse program for defense contractor Raytheon. "They develop weapons, then they develop munitions, and after they develop munitions, the last thing they worry about is how to fuse them."

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