A Tale of Two Cities: AOAV investigates the use of explosive weapons in Iraq

A new report launched on 5 February 2015 shows that the US military’s use of explosive weapons in Fallujah during 2004 disproportionately affected Iraqi civilians when compared to the British use of similar weapons in the battle for Basra in 2003.

In ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘, INEW member Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) investigated the conduct of British forces in Basra (2003) and American forces in Fallujah (2004). AOAV wanted to see how the US and the UK’s respective rules of engagement affected the way their militaries used explosive weapons like artillery shells and bombs dropped from aircraft.

The report found marked differences in British and American usage of explosive weapons in populated areas in the Iraq war.

Sourcing data from Wikileaks’ Iraq War logs, declassified military information, and archive reports from soldiers and witnesses on the ground, AOAV found that British troops treated Basra city as a ‘restricted fire zone’, where the use of heavy explosive weapons like large-calibre artillery was tightly monitored.

In stark contrast to this approach, the national rules of engagement for the US at the time made it far easier for commanders to authorise heavy explosive weapon use in populated areas in Fallujah. US military PR may have emphasised how their troops were avoiding ‘collateral damage’, but  US forces showed a clear presumption towards using heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, particularly in the second operation, fought between November and December 2004.

By their own admission, US forces substituted manpower with firepower in Fallujah”, said Iain Overton, AOAV Director of Investigations. “Our findings contradict the image of fighting in Fallujah conveyed in the film like American Sniper. That film showed clean and targeted death, whereas in reality America’s heavy use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Fallujah caused huge levels of death and damage.”

The report can be downloaded here.

Key Findings

  • Up to 593 civilians were killed in Basra by British-led forces (20 March-9 April 2003).[i] This compares to an estimated higher limit of 1,382 civilians – 130% more – being killed in Fallujah during the two US-led operations in 2004.
  • US forces fired 14,000 artillery items as well as 93,000 machine gun or cannon rounds during the second operation in Fallujah (7 November-23 December). UK forces fired 34% fewer artillery rounds (9,153) during the battle of Basra,  and treated the densely-populated city itself as a ‘restricted fire zone’, ensuring that all strikes could only be authorised by a single control centre.
  • US and UK forces both used cluster munitions in Iraq. But US forces did so far more extensively. They deployed 10,780 cluster bombs, which collectively contain almost 2 million explosive submunitions. UK forces, on the other hand, launched 80% fewer cluster bombs (2,170). The UK has since joined the 2008 treaty banning these weapons, while the US has not.
  • The US’ gung-ho approach had major consequences. At least 36% (18,000) of buildings in Fallujah were destroyed or damaged during the US bombing in 2004.

Explosive weapons like aircraft bombs and artillery shells, all project blast and fragmentation around a point of detonation. They were central to the strategies of coalition forces in Iraq war from its earliest days of ‘Shock and Awe’.

This report is part of a series produced by AOAV that explores recent and ongoing military practices in the use of explosive weapons.

How do state and international forces regulate the use of weapons that affect a wide area and so minimise harm to civilians?

This research builds on existing evidence from AOAV that the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas leads to a predictable pattern of excessive civilian harm. It considers what rules and policies already exist to regulate the use of such force. And it asks to what extent are civilians protected not only by international law, but also by the practices of states on the ground, many of which go beyond existing law?  It concludes by asking, too, what measures could still be taken to reduce the terrible harm of explosive weapons on civilians?

AOAV is a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW). We believe that there is a need for stronger international standards against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Stopping the use of these weapons in populated areas would save civilian lives both during attacks and in the longer-term.

Find out more of AOAV’s research and analysis of the impact of explosive weapons.

[i] Not all of these deaths were caused by explosive weapons, but many of these deaths are attributed to US aerial bombing. Iraq Body Count themselves cite a figure of 487-638 civilian deaths in Basra for the whole of March and April 2003 but these include deaths that occurred outside of the ‘battle’ period considered in this report.



This post originally appeared on AOAV’s website

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