UNITED NATIONS, April 2 (UPI) -- The U.N. children's agency UNICEF warned Wednesday that bright yellow-wrapped coalition Humanitarian Daily Rations hand-distributed in Iraq are the same color as air-dropped unexploded bomblets.
As in Afghanistan, UNICEF said the rations' yellow plastic wrap is identical in color to that of the bomblets in BLU-97 cluster bombs, posing a threat to children who may mistake the bombs for food.
U.S. officials have said they are changing the color of the HDRs, but are using up the remainder of the old stock.
Cluster bombs explode a short distance above the ground, scattering their bomblets over a wide area. The bomblets are designed to explode immediately, effectively blanketing their large target area with deadly shrapnel, but sometimes they do not go off right away. The remaining bomblets, like all unexploded munitions, pose a severe risk to anyone who comes into contact with them.
Children are at risk from the soda can sized BLU-97 bomblets anyway, because the bright yellow color can attract them, according to children's advocacy groups. But the danger is said to be worse if the HDRs given out by troops are the same color. The United Nations highlighted this danger in Afghanistan at the time of the U.S. campaign there in 2001.
The Pentagon official in charge of organizing humanitarian relief operations denied there was a problem with the similar colors at a recent press briefing, but said the color of the HDRs has been changed to "apricot" for added safety.
"There was an alleged problem. We were never able to document that it actually happened -- that someone, allegedly a child, in Afghanistan picked up a yellow cluster bomb unit and thinking it was an HDR," said Joseph J. Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. "Although we were not able to ever verify that particular story, the department's leadership decided to change the color of the HDR. After an extensive look at colors and whatever -- it was sort of like picking out drapes for a while there; people were showing up with huge swatches of colors for folks to look at."
Collins said the old style yellow HDRs are still in use for financial reasons.
"They're roughly five bucks apiece. And there was really no way of taking them out of one bag and putting them in another without creating a tremendous amount of (trouble,)" Collins said.
Iraqi officials have repeatedly accused the U.S. military of using cluster bombs in civilian areas like Baghdad.
U.S. Central Command spokesman at a press briefing in Qatar Wednesday said cluster bombs are not being used in Baghdad or other areas heavy with civilians.
"Cluster munitions are available, and they're used by tactical commanders to create a tactical effect on the battlefield. And they, like other things, particularly in this operation, the conditions for people, the conditions for unintended consequences, are taken into account before the decision," Brooks said.
He did not deny that cluster bombs are being used, and a surgical assistant at a hospital in Nassiriya, told a British reporter Tuesday that U.S. aircraft had dropped three or four cluster bombs on civilian areas in the city, killing 10 and wounding 200.
Reports Wednesday suggested that a large number of civilians had been killed or wounded by such munitions in the town of Al Hilla.
"I don't have any specifics about that particular attack and the explosions that would link it to cluster munitions at all. What I can tell you right now is how we approach the use of cluster munitions. And we can try to get more information as it becomes available," Brooks said in response to questions about the incident.
Military officials say cluster bombs are typically used by the U.S military on battlefields where there are many dispersed foot soldiers.
The U.S.-based group, Human Rights Watch has called on the United States not to use cluster munitions of any kind in Iraq, because of the danger they pose to civilians.