The conflict in Iraq may be over but children continue to be killed and maimed at a steady pace by the remnants of war - coalition cluster bombs looking like toys, thousands of tons of Iraqi munitions abandoned in residential areas and leaking missiles lying around Baghdad - the United Nations children's agency said today.
"Cluster bombs come in interesting shapes that are attractive to children," the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Iraq, Carel de Rooy, told a briefing in Baghdad, stressing that children's natural curiosity makes them frequent victims of unexploded ordnance. "Many children are injured or killed because they see a shiny metal object, sometimes in the shape of a ball, and they have to go and pick it up and play with it."
Since the end of the war, more than a thousand children have been injured by cluster bombs or Iraqi munitions. In some neighbourhoods cluster munitions, some shaped like tiny bottles with short ribbons and others that are yellow with tissue parachutes, litter gardens and roof tops, UNICEF said. Heavier unexploded bombs are sometimes buried by impact in the floors of houses occupied by families who have nowhere else to live.
Another threat has become apparent in recent weeks, with children suffering injuries from Soviet-era missiles abandoned by Iraqi forces. Around 100 surface-to-air missiles (SA-2) are lying around Baghdad in various stages of decay, some damaged by shrapnel, filled with volatile rocket fuel and with functioning warheads. Some experts estimate that up to 1,000 SA-2 missiles have been left unguarded across Iraq.
Experts say small leaks through punctures or cracks produce a dark yellow smoke which if inhaled, can sear a person's lungs and inflict a slow, painful death. Contact with skin causes serious burns.
"These are highly volatile and can cause severe injuries on their own, let alone when they are attached to nearly 200 kilogrammes of high explosives. We have already seen children with chemical burns from playing around and fiddling with these weapons," Mr. de Rooy said.
"Just like the cluster bombs that are left over from the war, the coalition forces have a clear obligation under humanitarian law to remove these dangers from communities," he added. "Although soldiers on the ground are doing their best to respond to requests from Iraqis, it's not enough, and it's not fast enough."
A UN-coordinated mass public information campaign targeting contaminated areas in Iraq has been launched using local media networks, schools and food distribution.
On another humanitarian front, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday began registering Palestinian refugees in Iraq who were previously registered with the government. It will take three months to complete the process, which involves some 80,000 Palestinians. The Palestinians currently languishing in a tented camp in the middle of Baghdad will soon be moved to a vacant apartment block identified by UNHCR.
Meanwhile, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers today welcomed a Jordanian Government decision to allow Iraqis to stay in Jordan while conditions in Iraq remain unsettled. Around 200,000 to 300,000 Iraqis are in a "refugee-like" situation in Jordan, according to UNHCR.
"I am pleased that the Jordanian Government has given no indication that pressure is being placed on Iraqis in Jordan to return to Iraq," Mr. Lubbers said after meetings with King Abdallah II, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher and other senior officials in the capital, Amman. He is scheduled to go to Baghdad on Saturday, when he will meet with Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and other officials.