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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
U.S. Might Use Landmines In Iraq; Future Policy Unclear

Wade Boese

Among the many weapons that U.S. military forces might use in combat against Iraq is one that its key coalition partners, the United Kingdom and Australia, have forsworn: anti-personnel landmines (APLs).

U.S. forces might use APLs to deny Iraqi forces access to facilities or sites suspected of housing chemical or biological weapons, according to a senior Pentagon official who briefed reporters March 5.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), an advocate of eliminating landmines, warned in a March 17 statement that U.S. APL use in Iraq would be “unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.” He added, “U.S. APL use [in Iraq] would put us at odds with the policies of many of our allies and set back efforts to ban these indiscriminate weapons.”

All U.S. NATO allies except Turkey, as well as some 120 other countries, have signed the Ottawa Convention banning the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of APLs. The United States refused to sign the accord when it was opened for signature in December 1997 because it had stricter provisions than what the United States deemed acceptable. Iraq also has not signed the treaty.

U.S. officials and commanders have been told that British personnel should not be asked to lay APLs, because it would contravene the United Kingdom’s Ottawa obligations. When London deposited its instrument of ratification for the Ottawa Convention in July 1998, it did so with a declaration that British participation in planning, exercises, or operations with countries not bound by the treaty would not be contrary to its treaty commitments.

At a February 27 meeting of the 66-member Conference on Disarmament, Australian Ambassador Michael Smith condemned the use of APLs, stating that they “are not a weapon essential to any state’s security.” He continued, “On the contrary they constitute a menace to civilians and they have no place in any country’s arsenal.”

U.S. landmine use is governed by the 1996 amended mines protocol of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The protocol does not prohibit landmine use, but restricts their use in a number of ways. For example, the protocol requires that mines delivered by aircraft or artillery must be equipped with self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms to limit the amount of time they can be triggered to explode.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. forces employed approximately 118,000 landmines—both APLs and mixed systems that comprise both anti-tank and anti-personnel components—for several intended purposes, including protecting the flanks of U.S. forces, restricting Iraqi troop movements, and frustrating the freedom of movement of Iraq’s mobile Scud missile launchers.

Whether U.S. landmine use in the 1991 Gulf War had any effect on the Iraqi military is uncertain, according to a September 2002 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), which does studies and investigations for Congress. GAO reported that the Pentagon provided “no evidence of specific military effects on the enemy—such as enemy killed or equipment destroyed.”

The GAO said some U.S. military commanders in that conflict had qualms about employing landmines due to concerns about limiting their own battlefield mobility or accidentally killing U.S. and allied soldiers. Iraqi or “unknown” types of mines caused 81 total U.S. casualties, but none of the U.S. military’s 385 deaths or 979 wounded in the 1991 conflict were directly attributed to U.S. landmines.

The GAO, however, reported that “some portion of the 142 casualties caused by an unknown type of land mine or unknown or misidentified type of unexploded ordnance might have been caused by U.S. or other land mines, but there is no way of knowing.” The Pentagon contested this assertion in a September 12, 2002, letter, claiming that the GAO report “implies, wrongly, that landmines (including U.S. use of landmines) caused greater casualties to U.S. forces than the available data substantiates.”

At the time of the 1991 Gulf War, landmines were considered by most countries to be legitimate weapons of war. President Bill Clinton then called on countries in September 1994 to start working toward the elimination of APLs, because they often continue to pose risks to civilians after fighting ceases. Support for the effort increased rapidly, culminating September 1997 in the completion of the Ottawa Convention.

The United States did not play a major role in negotiating the treaty, however, and decided against joining the accord because Washington wanted to continue using mixed systems that the Ottawa Convention prohibited and preferred a scheduled phase-out of APL use rather than an immediate ban. This last concern stemmed mostly from a desire to preserve the right to use APLs on the Korean Peninsula.

In May 1998, Clinton pledged that the United States would end the use of APLs outside the Korean Peninsula by 2003 and join the Ottawa Convention by 2006 if the United States could identify and field suitable alternatives to its APLs and mixed systems by then.

Neither the Clinton nor Bush administration clarified whether “by 2003” meant January 1, 2003 or December 31, 2003. The course of recent events has made December 31 the de facto date, a State Department official said in a March 18 interview.

The general consensus among government officials currently reviewing U.S. landmine policy is that both the 2003 and 2006 objectives are contingent upon the successful development of APL alternatives.

But Tim Rieser, a Leahy aide, strongly disputed this assertion, noting that a May 1998 letter from Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, to Leahy spelling out the administration’s policy was unambiguous and did not tie ending APL use beyond the Korean Peninsula by 2003 to developing alternatives.

The letter Berger wrote stated, “The United States will end the use of all APLs outside Korea by 2003, including those that self-destruct.” Berger’s letter continued, “The United States will aggressively pursue the objective of having APL alternatives ready for Korea by 2006.”

Another State Department official knowledgeable of the Clinton landmine policy said in a March 20 interview that the commitment ending APL use outside the Korean Peninsula was not linked with having APL alternatives. The official pointed out, however, that the 2003 pledge did not apply to mixed systems.

The Bush administration is currently conducting a review of U.S. landmine policy and has yet to announce its findings. Clinton’s policy will remain in effect until it is either replaced or renounced.