UNICEF says cluster bombs, left over munitions and hundreds of surface-to-air missiles* are a deadly threat to the children of Iraq
BAGHDAD/GENEVA, 17 July 2003 – UNICEF says that although the conflict may be largely over, Iraqi children continue to be maimed and killed at a steady pace by the remnants of war.
Since the end of the war, more than 1,000 children have been injured by weapons such as cluster bombs dropped by coalition forces, or the thousands of tonnes of munitions stockpiled and abandoned by Iraqi forces in public buildings and residential areas of Iraq.
According to UNICEF’s Representative in Iraq, Carel de Rooy, children’s natural curiosity makes them frequent victims of unexploded ordnance.
“Cluster bombs come in interesting shapes that are attractive to children,” said de Rooy. “Many children are injured or killed because they see a shiny metal object, sometimes in the shape of a ball, and they have to go and pick it up and play with it.”
UNICEF reports that in some neighbourhoods small cluster munitions, some shaped like tiny bottles with short ribbons and others that are yellow with tissue parachutes, litter gardens and roof tops. Heavier unexploded bombs are sometimes buried by impact in the floors of houses occupied by families who have nowhere else to live.
“On top of this, children are also foraging in abandoned ammunition dumps for precious metals and other parts to sell, as well as using the ammunition crates for cooking fuel, spilling their contents all over the floor,” said de Rooy.
Two weeks ago at least 30 people were reported killed while foraging through an ammunition dump at Haditha, 260km north east of Baghdad. People from across the region had been arriving at the dump every morning, disassembling the shells, removing the explosives, and selling the metal for scrap.
The UNICEF representative said that he is concerned at the enormity of the clean-up task amidst an array of equally pressing priorities facing the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Although military forces have begun clearing munitions, UNICEF has asked the CPA to use commercial contractors to clear urban areas of dangerous military debris and munitions, with the same speed as contractors were identified for the education system and the oil industry. Those contracts were raised within weeks of American forces entering Baghdad.
According to UNICEF, in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk alone, 133 children were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance during the last two weeks of April. As many as 20 incidents per day have been reported from the northern city of Mosul, and the World Health Organization reports that in the south children under five account for 20 per cent of UXO accidents. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) says injuries and fatalities are likely to be much higher throughout the country because of under-reporting.
Major new threat
But another threat has become apparent in recent weeks, with children suffering injuries from Soviet-era missiles abandoned by Iraqi forces. Around 100 surface to air missiles (SA-2) are lying around Baghdad in various stages of decay, some damaged by shrapnel, filled with volatile rocket fuel and with functioning warheads. Many of the missiles and their supporting trailers have been looted for scrap metal, dangerously weakening the superstructures. Some international experts estimate that up to 1,000 SA-2 missiles have been left unguarded across Iraq.
Experts say that small leaks through punctures or cracks produce a dark yellow smoke which if inhaled, can sear a person’s lungs and inflict a slow, painful death. Contact with skin causes serious burns.
“These are highly volatile and can cause severe injuries on their own,” added de Rooy, “let alone when they are attached to nearly 200 kg of high explosives. We have already seen children with chemical burns from playing around and fiddling with these weapons.”
One SA-2 missile reportedly exploded in a residential area of Baghdad recently, killing all of the occupants of a nearby house. In another incident, a child playing near a missile that began to leak the gas propellant was severely burned on his face.
“Just like the cluster bombs that are left over from the war, the coalition forces have a clear obligation under humanitarian law to remove these dangers from communities,” said de Rooy. “Although soldiers on the ground are doing their best to respond to requests from Iraqis, it’s not enough, and it’s not fast enough.”
[A small US assessment team arrived in Baghdad this week to examine the SA-2s]
A UN-coordinated mass public information campaign targeting contaminated areas in Iraq has been launched using local media networks, schools and food distribution points. As part of this, all UNICEF School-in-the-Box kits, delivered to thousands of schools throughout Iraq, include information to help children identify and avoid UXOs. Landmine and UXO clearance teams working in Iraq also carry out community-based awareness with materials and technical support provided through UNICEF.
*The SA-2 missile weighs approximately 2,300 kg, is 11 meters long, has a 195 kg High Explosive warhead, and a booster motor containing solid rocket propellent. Of the two fuels that are used to propel the missile, one is a corrosive acid (Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid - IRFNA), and the other is a poisonous toxin (Unsymmetrical Dimethyl Hydrazine - UDMH).
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