WASHINGTON—Fifty U.S. airstrikes aimed at Saddam Hussein and other senior Iraqi leaders during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq failed to kill any of their targets but killed and injured dozens of civilians, said a report released Thursday.
The report, by New York-based Human Rights Watch, also said that the use of cluster munitions by U.S. and British forces killed and injured more than 1,000 civilians.
The report comes at a time when the U.S. military's use of airstrikes to kill adversary leaders is under question following a Dec. 6 attack in Afghanistan that killed nine children and a laborer.
"Coalition forces generally tried to avoid killing Iraqis who weren't taking part in combat," said Kenneth Roth, the organization's executive director. "But the deaths of hundreds of civilians still could have been prevented."
Civilian casualties during the March 20 to April 9 invasion helped fuel anti-U.S. anger and boost support for insurgents. The guerrillas have killed nearly 200 U.S. troops and dozens of others since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1.
Human Rights Watch said its investigation wasn't aimed at estimating the total number of civilian casualties but rather at identifying the circumstances that led to them.
Human Rights Watch is a leading international human rights monitoring organization and its reports are widely considered authoritative and credible.
The new report, "Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq," found that Iraqi forces committed numerous international humanitarian law violations that "led to significant civilian casualties." The violations included the use of human shields and anti-personnel mines, and the deployment of troops and weapons in mosques, hospitals and other protected places.
While coalition forces took numerous precautions to avoid killing and injuring civilians, they could have minimized casualties further if they had abandoned the use of cluster munitions and airstrikes against leaders, it said.
The report noted that U.S. commanders tried to pinpoint the locations of Saddam and his senior lieutenants by intercepting their satellite telephone transmissions. But U.S. satellites and aircraft could pinpoint the transmissions only to within a 328-foot radius.
"In effect, imprecise target coordinates were used to program precision-guided munitions," it said.
Moreover, it was possible that Iraqi leaders knew their transmissions were being monitored and placed their telephones far from where they were hiding, the report said.
In any case, it said, U.S. commanders compounded the problem by failing to effectively assess the risks to civilians before launching airstrikes at what the Pentagon called "time-sensitive targets."
Defense officials said the unprecedented speed and precision with which the war was conducted contributed to saving lives on all sides.
The accuracy of coalition aircraft and ground forces was "unparalleled in history," said Maj. Pete Mitchell of U.S. Central Command. He said planners always had intelligence to corroborate telephone signal intercepts before they launched leadership strikes.
Human Rights Watch examined four of the 50 strikes that U.S. officials said were aimed at killing Saddam and his top officials. Forty-two civilians were killed and dozens more injured in the four attacks, it said.
The report determined that the largest numbers of civilian casualties were caused by the use of cluster munitions in populated areas.
Cluster munitions—air-dropped bombs or ground-fired missiles—scatter hundreds of small bombs over broad areas and are often inaccurate.
When it explodes, the bomblet hurls 300 pieces of anti-personnel shrapnel and a molten metal slug and fragments of burning material designed to destroy armored vehicles.
The report said U.S. and British forces launched nearly 13,000 cluster munitions containing nearly 2 million bomblets that killed or wounded more than 1,000 civilians.
Mitchell insisted that cluster munitions were used only in "very precise circumstances" and that "if it's a choice between whether or not (a U.S. commander) is going to save the lives of his men and women he won't hesitate to use it."
The report warned that tens of thousands of bomblets that failed to explode continue to pose a danger to Iraqis and U.S.-led coalition troops.
It recommended, among other steps, that the United States halt air attacks on leadership targets until it corrects its targeting methods and that the use of cluster munitions be stopped "until the humanitarian problems associated with these weapons are resolved."
The report was based on Pentagon data, visits by Human Rights Watch researchers to 10 Iraqi cities between April 29 and June 1 and interviews with more than 200 Iraqi victims, family members and Iraqi doctors, and U.S. and British military officials and others.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.