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British troops used cluster bombs in built-up areas during the war in Iraq, the Government confirmed for the first time yesterday.
Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, insisted that the use of the controversial weapons in Basra was justified because they were directed at Iraqi military units posing a threat to British troops' lives.
The minister made his comments as The Independent revealed that he had written a letter in the run-up to the war conceding there were "occasions when the use of cluster bombs against certain targets would not be legal".
The letter, to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, stated that the Geneva Conventions set clear limits for the use of the munitions.
The Convention states that armed forces have to distinguish between civilian targets such as towns and cities and military targets.
Mr Ingram said yesterday that Britain was making massive efforts to remove the danger of unexploded bombs to Iraqi civilians, with about 100,000 pieces of ordnance - possibly including cluster bombs - made safe since the end of the war.
Cluster bombs pose a threat to civilians long after hostilities have ended, because some of the large numbers of bomblets they scatter over a wide area inevitably fail to explode on impact. Already there are reports of children being injured in Iraq after stumbling across unexploded ordnance.
In the early days of the conflict, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, insisted that cluster bombs would not be used indiscriminately and would be aimed at enemy forces such as "armed columns" in "battlefield" areas.
The Ministry of Defence says that about 2,000 of the bomblet shells were fired by artillery on the ground and about 60 cluster bombs were dropped from the air during the war.
Mr Ingram today told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that cluster bombs were "used in specific circumstances where there is a threat to our troops". He said: "We said they would be targeted on specific military targets. There were troops, there was equipment in and around the built-up areas, therefore the bombs were used accordingly to take out the threat to our troops."
Mr Ingram acknowledged that not all unexploded ordnance had been cleared away from former battlefields. He added that Britain had 200 personnel working on the issue. "Our teams have already destroyed in the region of 100,000 unexploded ordnance - not necessarily cluster bombs - that posed a threat to all of the citizens of Iraq and to our forces who remain there."
But Reuben Brigety of Human Rights Watch called for more information on the location of cluster bombs to be given to ordinary Iraqis.
Speaking from Basra, he told Today: "They have been used in populated areas of Basra. We have actually seen the weapons themselves.
"There is no question that the coalition could do more and should do more. They should release information about the location of where they used these weapons, not simply a location of where these weapons have been found. The information should be released not only for the de-mining organisations but also for the population."
Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, said: "Now that the search for weapons of mass destruction produced by Iraq is on and failing, nothing much is being done about the weapons of mass destruction used by our side, which are basically cluster bombs.
"Unless we clean up our own mess then our position is, frankly, dishonest and contemptible. We shouldn't use these weapons."
Another Labour backbencher, Michael Connarty, said that Ann Clwyd, who was recently appointed Tony Blair's envoy on human rights in Iraq, should look into the issue of cluster bombs.
"I would hope her remit was to look at human rights as they have affected the Iraqi people both in terms of what happened in Saddam Hussein's regime and what happened in the war," he said.
"We can't say on the one hand that we want to minimise collateral damage and on the other hand use weapons specifically designed to kill large numbers of people."
RAF aircraft in Iraq were armed with unguided BL755 cluster bombs, which each scatter 147 bomblets across a wide area when they are dropped at low level.
Under pressure: Ingram's 'Today' interview
John Humphrys: ... Geoff Hoon said they would be used in battlefield areas where there would be the minimum of casualties.
Adam Ingram: And that's exactly what I have said ...
Humphrys: Built-up areas?
Ingram: Well, there were troops and equipment in those areas ... Now I make the point to you ...
Humphrys: Well yes, they were all over ... Iraq ... clearly they were everywhere
Ingram: And therefore posing a threat to our troops and therefore we had to take the appropriate action ...
Humphrys: With cluster bombs?
Ingram: With a whole range of ammunition.
Humphrys: Including cluster bombs?
Ingram: When Geoff Hoon ... of course cluster bombs...