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Australian responsibility: cluster bomb carnage in Iraq

By Chris Doran - posted Thursday, 3 March 2011

With the eight year anniversary of the Iraq invasion fast approaching, action to hold those responsible continues around the world. The UK Chilcot Inquiry has seen former prime minister Tony Blair twice forced to justify his decision to invade. Last month George Bush was forced to cancel a planned visit to Switzerland due to expected mass protests and the very real possibility of his indictment under universal jurisdiction laws for his administration's policies of systematic torture. There have also been at least four other attempts to indict senior Bush officials in Germany, France, and Spain. In addition, there have been military trials of US and UK soldiers for murder, rape, and other violations.

But alas, no such efforts at accountability have occurred in Australia. That an Australian government willingly took part in the mass destruction of a people that it had no quarrel with, and whose prime minister knew the basis for war was a pack of lies, apparently is not worth bothering over. True, we committed far fewer forces than the US or UK, and our military participation was conducted to ensure there were few Australian casualties. But that hardly means we are blameless.

In 'Now is the time for an Australian inquiry into the Iraq War' (Online Opinion, January 28), I provided an overview of the considerable number of war crimes that the Howard government and the senior military leadership in place at the time should be investigated for, and the need for a full inquiry. Among these was an allegation that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) knowingly and deliberately provided cover for American ground troops firing cluster bombs on heavily populated civilian areas during the invasion.


Further research reveals this allegation to be significant. Along with Australian military commanders' responsibility for the horrific assault on Fallujah in late 2004 (see 'The Reality of Australia's Collateral Damage in Iraq', Online Opinion 4 April, 2008), it provides the second clear and indisputable case regarding Australia's direct participation in serious allegations of war crimes in Iraq.

Within a week of the 'Shock and Awe' aerial bombing campaign which launched the invasion on 20 March, 2003, the RAAF's FA18 Hornet fighter jets' primary role was to provide close air support for US ground forces engaged in battle on their way north towards Baghdad. On April 7, ADF Brigadier Mike Hannan announced that the Hornet's targeting policy had been exclusively focused 'only on engaging targets in direct support of coalition ground forces'.

Those ground troops that the RAAF Hornets were 'in direct support of' fired extensive cluster bomb munitions on defenceless civilian populations. An extensive Human Rights Watch investigation conducted in Iraq found that 'Unlike Coalition air forces, American and British ground forces used cluster munitions extensively in populated areas … use of these weapons [cluster munitions] was widespread along the battle route to Baghdad' [3], with significant numbers of civilian casualties in southern Iraq including al Hilla, Najaf, Kerbala, Nasiriyah, and Baghdad'.

Human Rights Watch found that the 'targeting of residential neighbourhoods with these area effect weapons [cluster bombs] represented one of the leading causes of civilian casualties in the war' [3]. A USA Today four-month study conducted in Iraq found that the US dropped or fired nearly 11,000 cluster bombs or cluster weapons during the invasion, containing between 1.7 and 2 million bomblets [4]. Britain used 2,000 more [24].

In an editorial calling for the Bush Administration to be tried for war crimes in Iraq, columnist Paul Rockwell (2004) describes a cluster bomb as:



a 14-foot weapon that weighs about 1,000 pounds [455 kilograms]. When it explodes it sprays hundreds of smaller bomblets over an area the size of two or three football fields. The bomblets are bright yellow and look like beer cans. And because they look like playthings, thousands of children have been killed by dormant bomblets in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq. Each bomblet sprays flying shards of metal that can tear through a quarter inch of steel. The failure rate, the unexploded rate, is very high, often around 15 to 20 percent. When bomblets fail to detonate on the first round, they become land mines that explode on simple touch at any time [5].


Cluster bombs are prohibited under the Australian Anti-PersonnelMines Convention Act [6] but are not banned by the US and UK, and there is no evidence that the RAAF used them. But the Australian Defence Force's close air support for American ground troops who used them as munitions, is a serious war crime charge. While technically not illegal as a weapon during the Iraq War, cluster bombs have long been condemned. Human rights groups have repeatedly called for a ban on their use. It is their inability to discriminate between military and civilian populations that is particularly offensive, as well as the ongoing danger to civilian populations from unexploded ordinance. Deliberate firing of cluster munitions on a civilian population qualifies as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Cluster munitions are now prohibited by nations that ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which entered into force and became binding international law in August 2010. As of December 2010, Australia had signed but not yet ratified the treaty; the United States has refused to sign [8].

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About the Author

Christopher Doran is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Political Economy at Macquarie University.

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All articles by Chris Doran

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