Humanitarian organizations are petitioning President Bush not to use antipersonnel land mines or deadly cluster bombs in a military campaign against Iraq, arguing that the danger to civilians and allied soldiers during and after a war outweighs the benefits.
The use of land mines designed to kill individuals -- in contrast to mines intended to destroy vehicles -- could endanger U.S. personnel and Iraqi citizens, as well as slow the rehabilitation of Iraq, wrote Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International, in a letter to Bush.
"Unexploded landmines are hidden killers that inflict damage long after the fighting stops," wrote Bacon and the organization's chairman, Virginia businessman James V. Kimsey. They said U.S. attempts to eliminate dangerous Iraqi weapons "will be undermined by the use of weapons of indiscriminate destruction."
Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch said organizations have been lobbying U.S. allies in the NATO alliance and beyond to urge the Bush administration not to use antipersonnel mines if it attacks Iraq. "The United States is isolated on this," Goose asserted yesterday.
The Bush administration's policy on the military's use of land mines is "under review," National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said yesterday. Pentagon officials offered no comment, but military planners have not publicly foresworn their use. They considered them effective in limiting enemy movements in the 1991 Gulf War.
Pentagon officials point out that modern land mines, known as "smart mines," are equipped with timing devices that defuse a mine at varied intervals from a few hours to 15 days.
A separate hazard is posed by cluster bombs, which scatter 202 small bomblets designed to explode on impact. When they fail to detonate -- 5 percent are typically duds -- they effectively become antipersonnel mines.
Attempts to pressure the United States into avoiding the use of antipersonnel mines in Iraq are part of a wider effort to limit the possible war's destructiveness. Humanitarian groups have been meeting with the Pentagon and the United Nations to plan relief efforts, while the U.S. military has been urging Iraqi officers not to fight back if war erupts.
In its letter to Bush, Refugees International noted a General Accounting Office warning that the self-destruction mechanism on land mines failed to work in an unexpectedly large number of cases. The mines "often explode after the battle is over," the letter stated.
"In Iraq, this could pose risks to U.S. troops, Iraqi civilians -- including returning refugees -- and humanitarian workers," wrote Bacon, chief Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration. "Malfunctioning land mines could also endanger road building and reconstruction crews working to rehabilitate the country after a war."
The U.S. military has not used antipersonnel mines since the Gulf War, when U.S. forces deployed about 118,000 self-destructing land mines in Iraq and Kuwait, according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress. They were typically scattered across battlefields by aircraft and artillery shells.
Eighty-one U.S. military personnel were harmed by exploding land mines during the 1991 conflict, the GAO said, although none of the casualties was connected to U.S. mines.
The Pentagon maintains a stockpile of about 18 million land mines, including 15 million of the newer, self-destructing mines designed to kill individuals or destroy vehicles. The U.S. government has not endorsed a 1997 treaty signed by 146 countries that bans the production, use, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel mines.
The United States believes that the convention "does not adequately address U.S. security requirements and international responsibilities," said a State Department spokeswoman. In recent practice, however, the Defense Department has been guided by two Clinton administration directives.
One directive, issued in June 1996, restricts the use of M-14 and M-16 antipersonnel mines -- old weapons that do not self-destruct and thus remain active threats for years -- to U.S. forces in Korea. The second, issued in 1998, directs the Pentagon to develop alternatives to antipersonnel land mines and to end the use of all antipersonnel land mines outside Korea by 2003.
Cluster bombs are often used by U.S. forces. Human Rights Watch estimated in a recent report on Afghanistan that 12,400 unexploded bomblets remain on the ground and have killed or injured 127 civilians since October 2001. The group urged the Pentagon to stop using cluster bombs until the "dud rate" is reduced from more than 5 percent to less than 1 percent of bomblets.
"If that call is not listened to," Goose said, "we have said that, at the very least, if you do use them, you should not use them near populated areas." The organization said 2.2 million unexploded bomblets left on the battlefield in Iraq killed 1,600 civilians and injured 2,500 more in the first two years after the Gulf War.