Baghdad's unexploded bombs
BAGHDAD, IRAQ — A two-inch-long black cylinder hangs on a white "stabilizer" ribbon from the branch of a lemon tree, a deadly fruit in a leafy Baghdad neighborhood.
It's one of the unexploded cluster bombs fired by US forces last week that still litter several residential areas of the city.
On this street alone, residents say the controversial bomblets have killed four men. About 100 unexploded cylinders lie under bushes and in the gutters of houses in the district of Al Khouarneq, according to US bomb disposal experts who were encasing them in plaster Tuesday or blowing them up.
The cleanup marked one aspect of tentative efforts by US and Iraqi officials to restore normality to the Iraqi capital of 5 million people Tuesday, as citizens helped collect unexploded ordnance, opened a very few shops, welcomed the return of electricity to a handful of streets, and worked to mend local telephone exchanges.
Sporadic gun fights and looting continued to make Baghdad decidedly unsafe, however, and US troops in the center of the city beefed up their security measures.
But the homeowners in southern Baghdad were more frightened of the little black cylinders in their midst than looters.
"Bush and Blair said they were looking out for the people, that they were not going to hurt anyone, but there are bombs outside our houses," says Kawther Hussein, a mother of three who shook with fear as a loud explosion rocked her normally placid suburban street.
US and British media have reported several deaths and injuries in recent days resulting from Iraqi civilians handling cluster bombs in other Baghdad neighborhoods. The United States, like most other countries, regards cluster bombs as legitimate weapons against concentrations of enemy troops or armor.
Asked about the cluster bombs found in Baghdad, US Central Command spokesman Lt. Herb Josey in Qatar replied that Saddam Hussein's "regime has in many instances placed military targets near civilian areas to increase the chances of collateral damage. In general, we try to target legitimate military targets only. If cluster bombs are the best weapons to use against a target, they are the weapon of choice. We take into account the chances of civilian casualties all the time."
The quiet streets of Al Khouarneq, lined with olive trees, bougainvillaea bushes, and roses, are now pitted with the telltale pockmarks left by the shards of metal dispersed by cluster bomb explosions. Neighbors say that four civilian men died in the US attack early in the morning of April 7, Rashid Majid and two of his sons, Arkan and Ghassan, and a neighbor, Uday Kedr.
It was unclear from local residents' accounts whether they were killed in the raid itself, while going to help extinguish a fire in a nearby home, or whether one of them set off an unexploded bomblet by picking it up. "I heard a big bang, then a series of bangs, and everyone was terrified. They were very astonished with fear," says Ahmed, a local resident who declined to give his family name.
The submunitions now lying around the area are of a type fired either by 155 mm artillery or Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, says US Army Capt. Thomas Austin, a combat engineer who was supervising the destruction of the lethal bomblets Tuesday.
It was unclear what the shells had been aimed at. Local people said Iraqi troops had set up two antiaircraft guns by a highway 200 yards from the houses that were hit and more than half a mile away are the ruins of an Iraqi air-defense training center, residents say has been abandoned since 1991. Capt. Derek Mayfield, who is with US forces now occupying the base, says his troops have found no unexploded US ordnance on the base, indicating it wasn't a target.
Whatever the intended target, the shells fell in the middle of a residential district of two-story sand-colored houses with flat roofs, where people are now fearful to sit in their gardens or walk the streets. The bomblet in the lemon tree was outside No. 5, 19th Street. "I live at number seven, and I am so afraid," says Hassan Samr, a computer engineer. "So is my family."
A few doors up, Qusay Abdel Majid showed reporters his front garden, treading lightly around the three unexploded cluster bomblets that lay on the grass under a palm tree to point out another under a rosebush.
Captain Austin says his men dealt with about 20 unexploded submunitions on Monday, digging small dams around them, pouring plaster of Paris over the bomblets to freeze the sensitive fuses, and then carrying the bombs in their hardened cases away for destruction.
Short of plaster, however, US soldiers were pulling bomblets out of gardens on the end of long ropes by Tuesday, and destroying them with controlled detonations in the streets. Austin says he expect to finish the job in this part of the city within five or six days. "This is the worst place I've seen myself," he says.
The use of cluster bombs is controversial, given the difficulty of aiming them correctly and the dangers they can pose to civilians both at the moment of attack and later, in the form of duds that could go off at the slightest contact, like a land mine.
Under the Geneva Convention, attacks are prohibited if they cause incidental loss of civilian life or civilian injury that is excessive in relation to the anticipated direct military advantage of the attack.
If the intended targets of the cluster bombs on April 7 were the two antiaircraft guns near Mr. Majid's home, they could fall foul of the Convention's insistence on proportionality.
The first additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions also imposes a duty on armies to "take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life."
Even as US troops began removing cluster bombs, other units across the city to the west, in Kadhmiya, enlisted Iraqi help as they cleared a palm grove in a residential area of piles of unexploded ordnance.
Residents had marked off the area with string, and hung signs that read: "Danger: Cluster bombs." There were none found here but when the Bravo Company of the US Army 317th Engineer Combat Battalion arrived Tuesday morning, they had no shortage of Iraqi volunteers to load up unused Iraqi grenades, mortar and tank rounds, and bullets.
For many of the Iraqis, the hauling of the explosives to a collection point three miles north of the airport was a first step toward normality. "The Americans are helping us - this is a major concern for this neighborhood," says Salam Hamid, a merchant and former Iraqi Army officer who directed his neighbors to help US troops load ammunition boxes onto trucks. "The two most important things are peace and security. Definitely this is a boost."
Another signal that things were slowly getting back to normal were the street lights in the next neighborhood, which flickered on for the first time on Monday. "I felt so relieved, because this will help with security," says Mr. Hamid. "We want to go back to our safe society, and leave behind our past."
US Army engineers say their commanders met Tuesday with Iraqi municipal power officials, to begin restoring electricity. Getting schools and hospitals up and running are also a priority, they say - once classrooms are cleared of ordnance.
Iraqi civilians "are very helpful, and normally tell us of two or three other places [where munitions can be found] before we can finish the first. They are very scared that we are going to leave it, or blow it up in place," says US Army Capt. Doug Brinson.
In other security measures, American commanders issued a message to the "citizens of Baghdad" Tuesday, imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and calling on them to approach military positions with "extreme caution" so as not to be mistaken for "terrorist or criminal elements."
Otherwise, the message called on Baghdadis to reestablish "normal daily activity as we work together to restore public services." The note pleaded for firemen, medical staff, and police to report to US forces to restore power and other utilities.
Some Iraqis say that their "liberation" from the grip of Saddam Hussein, as the US calls it, has yet to yield any fruit. Asked about any signs of normalcy returning, student Hassanian Suhail replied: "None until now."
Like many Iraqis - who have even fewer sources of news, without electricity and television, and suffering from a shortage of radio batteries - Mr. Suhail was unaware that American officials Tuesday hosted a meeting of Iraqi exiles and community leaders from inside Iraq to work on charting a future government.
"If this meeting leads to security, we welcome it," Suhail says. "Even if they come from outside the country," he adds.
Still, most residents remain without water and electricity, and looters robbed a bank and conducted gun battles on the streets of Baghdad Tuesday, despite a lower number of incidents, and occasional patrols by Iraqi police.
"The new government promises a better future, and we expect it," says Mohamed Kadhim, a driver. "We don't want to get rid of a government, only to have it replaced by one that is worse."