Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

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].

The daily Australian Defence Force briefings given to journalists during the invasion clearly state that the RAAF Hornets were giving direct air support to US ground forces along the battle route north to Baghdad. ADF media briefings on April 1 and April 4 are typical:


April 1: [Journalist] QUESTION: And the bombing on the outskirts, are we involved in the battle for Baghdad now?


GENERAL [ADF CHIEF PETER] COSGROVE: Well, we are, because we're supporting the forces which are directly confronting Iraqi divisions on the outskirts of Baghdad. We're supporting those forces. So, yes, the bombing missions our planes are doing are directly in support of military operations designed to step right up to Baghdad' [9].


And April 4: BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: 'Now the issue with them [Hornets] is that they've been flying in that southern area of Iraq supporting the Coalition forces that are fighting in that area and attacking those, particularly those Republican Guard, and other Iraqi forces operating in the south' [10].

In this area of Iraq, on the outskirts of Baghdad where the Hornets were providing direct support to US troops on the ground, scores of civilians were killed by cluster bomb munitions fired primarily by US ground troops. On 31 March, 48 people were killed, including many children, and more than 300 injured in a cluster bomb attack at al Hilla (also spelled Hillah, Hilya), 80 kilometres south of Baghdad. At least 250 Iraqis were killed and 500 wounded over 17 days from late March, most the victims of cluster bombs [11].

Roland Hugenin-Benjamin, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq, described what happened in Hilla as 'a horror, dozens of severed bodies and scattered limbs' [11]. UK journalist Anton Antonowicz reported from a Hillah hospital:


Among the 168 patients I counted, not one was being treated for bullet wounds. All of them, men, women, children, bore the wounds of bomb shrapnel. It peppered their bodies. Blackened the skin. Smashed heads. Tore limbs. A doctor reported that 'All the injuries you see were caused by cluster bombs...The majority of the victims were children who died because they were outside' [12].


The cluster bomb attack on al Hilla received international media attention, and was condemned by Amnesty International and Britain's Diana Fund, founded by Britain's Princess Diana to stop international land mine use [13, 14].

On 28 March, 36 civilians died from cluster munitions in Najaf (160 kilometres south of Baghdad) and another 40 on April 2. A hospital survey of Najaf in mid April 2003 listed 378 dead and at least 920 injured [15]. At least 405 civilians, including 169 children, were killed and 900 injured in Nasiriyah, further south. Most died in the extensive ground battle from the start of the invasion through 31 March [16], with extensive use of cluster munitions [17].

On April 2-3, hospital officials reported at least 43 civilians were killed during US attacks on Republican Guard units in Aziziyah and the nearby village of Taniya, with many of the dead being children [18]. At least 35 died at Kerbala, most from cluster bombs, after the city fell to US forces on April 6 [24]. These are official hospital death figures, undoubtedly underestimates; many civilian deaths went unreported, as many who died never made it to a hospital or a morgue.

After first categorically denying they had used cluster munitions, the US then claimed that the high incidence of civilian deaths was because the Iraqis sited military installations- primary targets for US bombs- near civilian centres [24]. This is debatable, as eye witnesses in Hilla claimed the Iraqi military had fled before the cluster bomb attack [19]. Karbala civil-defence chief Abdul Kareem Mussan was quoted as saying that his 'men are harvesting about 1,000 cluster bombs a day in places [US Military] said were not targets' [24]. Regardless, under Article 85, 3(b) of the Geneva Conventions (Protocol 1), to which Australia is a signatory, it is a war crime to launch 'an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population in the knowledge that such an attack will cause an excessive loss of life or injury to civilians' [20].

Cluster bomb use in populated areas also violates Article 48, which protects civilians from military attack, and Article 51, which prohibits indiscriminate attacks. Section 3(b) (Article 51) defines indiscriminate attacks as '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'. Section 4(a) prohibits any 'attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated' [20].

Defence Minister Robert Hill was questioned directly regarding the Coalition's use of cluster bombs on Channel 10's Meet the Press on April 6. He made it clear that Australia did not actively oppose their use by the US and UK [21]:


'DEBORAH SNOW: Minister, I would like to ask you a question about cluster bombs which have been inflicting some horrendous injuries, it seems, in parts of Iraq - including segments of the civilian population. I know that Australia doesn't use them, or assist in their use, so you've said, but do you actually condone the use of these weapons by our coalition partners the US and the UK in the Iraqi situation?

ROBERT HILL: I don't think that the Americans have actually acknowledged using them...

DEBORAH SNOW: The British have.

ROBERT HILL: They have acknowledged, have they?

DEBORAH SNOW: As far as I am aware.

ROBERT HILL: Anyway, where it is possible to use an alternative munition, then we would prefer it. There are obviously aspects, in relation to cluster bombs, that we don't approve - and that is why we don't use them and we don't facilitate the use of them. Where there is not an alternative, that becomes a very difficult issue because we are in a conflict where Australian and other coalition lives are at risk. We want to achieve our goals as quickly and safely is possible.

DEBORAH SNOW: Have you not taken steps to try to ascertain whether they are being used or not, and if so made certain representations as to how you think they should be used, given that we are perceived, at least in the Arab world, as a part of the force that is using these weapons?

ROBERT HILL: No, I haven't done that. As I just said to you, if our coalition allies believe that they have no other alternative to safely and effectively achieve the mission, I am not going to condemn them for making that decision.'

Under the international legal doctrine of command responsibility, government and military officials can be held liable if they knew, or should have known, that anyone under their command was committing war crimes and they failed to prevent them [22]. This doctrine of command responsibility is codified in Article 28 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which is now embedded in Australian law. Further responsibility is specified under Article 28(a) regarding crimes committed by forces under their command if they 'either knew or, owing to the circumstances at the time, should have known that the forces were committing or about to commit such crimes' [23].

Despite direct knowledge of their widespread use and lethal effect on Iraq's civilian population, Hill still refused to condemn, or even question, their use by Australia's allies. Nor did he act to stop the RAAF's direct cover for US troops firing cluster munitions on heavily populated civilian areas. Hill, former Australian Defence Force head General Peter Cosgrove, and Brigadier General Mike Hannan, and other senior Australian ministers were direct participants, rather than simply accomplices, in this large scale killing of civilians.

This is just one among many examples of why we need an independent Inquiry into Australia's shameful participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Any Inquiry should address these and other numerous allegations of war crimes committed by Australia's senior government ministers, military leadership, and bureaucrats working in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the occupation government. An Inquiry should have the jurisprudence to initiate prosecution for war crimes in the Australian courts. In the case of those responsible for air support of cluster bomb munitions attacks on defenceless civilian populations, they should be tried for violations of the Geneva Conventions which protect civilians and prohibit indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, and as per Australia's ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

  1. Pages:
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
  6. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

6 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

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

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Chris Doran

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 6 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy