Last December we were told that President Obama had phoned his counterpart the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to congratulate him on the country’s military offensive against rebels in and around al-Ma'jalah, in the Abyan area of southern Yemen.
It was all part of routing al-Qa’ida in Yemen, a country that would soon be on everyone’s lips after it become common currency that the abortive Christmas Day Detroit plane bomber had allegedly been radicalised via Yemen.
Hmm. Presidential phone calls. Interesting things, aren’t they? They’re so firmly part of the language of power – we’re always being told about our leaders’ phone calls – that you never really think about them.
But – hold the line! – what about other phone calls in this affair? Because, when Obama was making his call to Saleh several US media organisations reportedly received calls with unattributed statements from White House officials about how the US president had actually authorised the launch of US cruise missiles on two targets in Yemen on 17 December 2009. That’s right! In West Wing style, the president’s press people were letting the US media know that it was actually the US that was masterminding the campaign in Yemen’s badlands, lending a hand with high-tech weaponry Yemen doesn’t itself have.
And the results? Well, those two missiles – specifically BGM-109D Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles by the looks of photographs Amnesty has acquired – disperse 166 cluster bombs. Each mini-bomb itself explodes (when they work) into 200-plus sharp steel fragments capable of causing injuries at a range of 150 metres. As the mathematically-minded reader will have realised, that’s 33,200 deadly steel weapons per missile, ie 66,400 in total in this instance.
In a word, cluster bombs are unacceptable weapons. Unexploded bomblets act as landmine-type devices that go off years later (often when children pick them up). On 1 August a new treaty ban on the weapons comes into force (neither the USA or Yemen has signed up yet).
Unsurprisingly, the al-Ma'jalah cluster munitions attack caused significant loss of life. A Yemeni parliamentary committee reported in February that 41 civilians were killed. Indeed it’s starting to become clear that Yemen’s “secret war” in its restive south has a scorched earth quality that is causing significant death and destruction with very little international attention or condemnation.
Hmm, not quite the sort of outcome the US president might want to be associated with. Perhaps the White House has been getting crossed lines in some of its telecommunications, but it would be nice to know (1) did its forces fire two Tomahawks into al-Ma'jalah on 17 December, (2) is it going to use cruise missiles and cluster bombs there again, and (3) will it sign up to the band on cluster bombs this autumn?
Maybe the White House could give Amnesty a call to explain.
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