Senate aid bill includes restrictions on cluster bombs

By: WILLIAM C. MANN - Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Legislation passed by the Senate to pay for aid and other State Department operations abroad would restrict the sale or transfer of cluster bombs, lethal munitions that spread death over wide areas and often kill civilians.

A cluster bomb is designed to break up in the air and disperse 200 to 400 bomblets over an area 500 yards across. The weapon is meant to disrupt large-scale troop formations, but cluster bombs have been used increasingly in civilian areas in military confrontations across the world.

As passed by the Senate Thursday night, the $34 billion bill would forbid transfer or sale of any cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than 1 percent. The idea is to reduce the number of incidents involving unexploded munitions.

The bill also provides military aid to familiar allies in the Middle East. Israel would receive $2.4 billion while Egypt would collect $1.3 billion. Afghanistan would receive about $1.1 billion for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction aid.

But the Senate joined the House in denying the Bush administration's $456 million request for aid to Iraq; $2.8 billion in Iraq reconstruction aid provided in May has yet to be spent.

The cluster bomb restriction was sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

"These volatile relics of the Cold War have taken their lethal toll on civilian populations all over the world for too long, from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East," Feinstein said in a statement Friday.

Leahy said the standards set by the bill could "greatly reduce the gruesome casualties these weapons needlessly inflict on innocent civilians."

Senate and House negotiators must now work out differences in the two bills to come up with a final version to be passed in both chambers and sent to President Bush.

The White House objects to the munitions clause and to another in the bill that would limit aid to countries that recruit or use child soldiers. A statement from the administration said it imposes safeguards on sales of cluster bombs and "vigilantly pursues efforts to prevent the use of children in combat."

The senators gave these figures in a background note:

--The Gulf region has 1.2 million bomblets left unexploded from the 1991 Gulf War and the current war in Iraq. The leftover weapons have killed an estimated 1,220 Kuwaitis and 400 Iraqi civilians.

--U.S. forces in Iraq used 13,000 cluster bombs with almost 2 million bomblets in 2003, during the initial invasion. During the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 against al-Qaida centers and the Taliban government that sheltered them, the U.S. used 1,228 cluster bombs with 248,056 bomblets; they have killed 127 civilians, 70 percent under the age of 18.

--In Laos, U.S. bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s left 9 million to 20 million bomblets, which have killed 11,000 people, three out of 10 of them children.

--Israel dropped an estimated 4 million bomblets in southern Lebanon in its war against the Hezbollah guerrillas last year, and an estimated 1 million did not explode. The background sheet cited reports that Hezbollah retaliated with cluster bombs of their own.

The U.S. military's arsenal contains 5.5 million cluster bombs containing 728 million bomblets, the senators' statement said. It said many fail at rates of 1 percent or higher.