The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for urgent conclusion of a global pact to ban cluster weapons even if big powers like the United States, Russia and China were not ready to join.

The Swiss-based humanitarian body's senior arms specialist, Peter Herby, told a news conference the ICRC hoped the text of a treaty would be approved at a conference in Dublin in May and be signed by many countries by the end of the year.

"We need a strong, legally-binding treaty urgently, in 2008, that would ban the use, development, stockpiling and transfer of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions," said Herby, who heads the ICRC's Arms Unit.

The topic climbed up the international agenda last summer when cluster munitions - which can spread hundreds of bomblets over a target area - were used by Israel in its battle against the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Campaigners say hundreds of Lebanese civilians were killed or maimed during and after the conflict because of what they call indiscriminate use of the weapon. Israel denies that it was used irresponsibly.

Herby discounted arguments from some producer states that the weapons can be made to self-destruct or otherwise rendered harmless after conflicts in which they have been used.

Cluster bombs can never be made totally reliable, he declared.

"We are not proposing any exclusions (from a treaty), as some states have," said Herby.

Some 140 states are involved in the so-called Oslo process, launched by Norway three years ago to prepare a treaty on an international ban outside the United Nations-sponsored CCW talks on dangerous weapons which many think can only move slowly.

A similar process has led to an international ban on landmines which major powers have still not signed up to.

Herby said urgency was added to the issue by the growing age of stockpiles, and by the risk that many more countries - and also "non-state actors" - jargon for terrorist or guerrilla groups - would get them.

An international group called Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC) says nearly 100 countries favor a ban, although some like Germany, France, Italy and Japan want a transitional period first.

The United States, Russia and China are reluctant to give up the weapons - originally developed to counter tank and troop offensives across borders during the Cold War but since used in many types of conflicts.

They say that cluster munitions should be handled in the CCW - talks on updating a 1981 pact on especially dangerous conventional weapons which will hold a series of "expert discussions" on the issue this year.