Civilian Deaths

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MARCO DI LAURO/GETTY IMAGES

Hamza Ali was playing outside when a leftover cluster munition exploded

When the shooting ended in Karbala, a holy city 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, the killing began for the family of Samira Jabar. Emerging on April 6 from two days of hiding from U.S. bombing, Jabar took her daughter Duaa Raheem, 6, to fetch water. Duaa happened on a black plastic object shaped like a C-cell battery attached to a white ribbon. Curious, she picked it up and brought her discovery home to share with her two sisters. On the concrete floor of their tiny kitchen, she cradled the object in her lap and twisted a screw. The explosion it triggered ripped Duaa's body in half, killed Duha, 3, and severely injured Saja, 8. "We thought we were safe because the bombs had stopped," says Jabar, 30, a farmer's wife. "My daughters were stolen from me."

Duaa had no way of knowing her plaything was a live cluster submunition, the lethal leftover sprinkled by U.S. warplanes and artillery. The Americans dropped some 1,500 cluster bombs, which are continuing their deadly work among innocents all over Iraq. Unlike GPS- or laser-guided "smart" bombs delivered to, say, a tank or other specific target, cluster bombs come packaged in warheads that split in midair and rain as many as hundreds of grenade- like bomblets. They are effective against dispersed troops, but the bomblets generally cannot be targeted individually. And not all the devices explode on impact. Some remain, like leftover land mines, as a deadly postwar risk to civilians.

The U.S. military may have downplayed the extent of cluster-bomb use in Iraq. Amid reports last month of heavy casualties, Air Force General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said only 26 cluster bombs had landed in civilian areas, resulting in one casualty. That estimate is hard to reconcile with accounts from hospitals, residents and civil-defense officials in Iraqi cities visited by TIME reporters.

Moreover, Myers was speaking only about bombs dropped from the air. "Myers hasn't talked at all about the use of cluster munitions from ground systems—either artillery or rocket systems," says Steve Goose, executive director of Human Rights Watch's arms division. An aide to Myers said the Army and Marines do not chart cluster bombs. According to Goose, the multiple launch rocket systems that were present in Iraq can fire 12 rockets at a clip, each of which has 644 submunitions. Assuming the Pentagon's failure-rate estimate of 16%, that would yield some 1,200 duds in a full volley.

Relief workers say the problem is far worse in Iraq than it was in Afghanistan because the Iraqis sited military installations—primary targets for U.S. bombs—near civilian centers. Karbala is typical. At al-Hussein hospital, 35 bodies have been brought in since the city fell April 6, many dismembered by a cluster-bomblet blast, according to chief surgeon Ali Iziz Ali. An additional 50 have been treated for fractures and deep, narrow puncture wounds, typical of the weapons. Karbala civil-defense chief Abdul Kareem Mussan says his men are harvesting about 1,000 cluster bombs a day in places Myers said were not targets.

Human rights activists say that until the military clears the air about the full extent of the bombs' use, it will be that much harder to round them up and stop the damage.