Attack on Iraq would expose soldiers to depleted uranium

By Scott Taylor ON TARGET 

Copyright 2002 The Halifax Herald Limited

A SENIOR Iraqi medical official warns that any U.S.-led military action against Iraq will have to confront "the hidden killer" as well as Saddam Hussein's forces.

"If they wish to launch Gulf War II, they had better be prepared to lose many of their soldiers to Gulf War Syndrome II," says Mona Al Jibowei, dean of the science faculty at Baghdad University.

"The allied soldiers went home after being exposed to depleted uranium for only a short period of time. Iraq has lived with its devastating effects for the past 12 years."

Since the end of the Gulf War, tens of thousands of allied veterans have developed debilitating illnesses and have qualified to collect medical pensions. Despite the fact these ex-service members have been compensated for their disabilities, officials say there is no scientific proof their illness is linked to service in the Persian Gulf or exposure to depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium is the waste byproduct of nuclear reactors. In the 1980s, U.S. researchers recognized that the material's density gave it tremendous armour-piercing potential. In addition to being able to punch through layers of hardened steel, shells coated with depleted uranium also ignite on impact, creating a fiery burst of radioactive particles inside an enemy armoured vehicle. It is this "aerosol" that most experts believe causes the variety of long- term health problems associated with Gulf War Syndrome.

"Although depleted uranium itself contains only low levels of radiation, once tiny aerosol particles are breathed in and become lodged in the lymph nodes, this radiation continues to attack the immune system and to alter reproductive chromosomes," Al Jibowei said. "This is why it creates such diverse results in different individuals."

Al Jibowei is on the executive committee of a special Iraqi research project to monitor the health hazard created by depleted uranium. A specialist in toxicology and pathology, the British-educated Al Jibowei has spent a lot of time since the Gulf War liaising with a number of international experts.

"This is entirely new science," said Al Jibowei. "The Gulf War was the first time that (such) munitions were used on an actual battlefield, and no one at the time had any idea what effect they would have on the body."

By analysing the available case information, the Iraqi researchers realized that the epicentre for effects is around Basra, in southern Iraq.

The U.S. and British air forces expended an estimated 300 tonnes of depleted-uranium ammunition in and around this key staging area for Iraq's military.

International researchers consider Basra to be "ground zero" as it represents the heaviest concentrations of depleted uranium next to a major urban centre.

"What we have noticed here is a tremendous increase in soft cancers like leukemia, particularly among children," said Al Jibowei. "There has also been a horrific epidemic of birth defects over the past 12 years."

The Iraqi surveys show children with such anomalies are almost exclusively born to parents who were directly exposed to depleted uranium.

"Either they were in the vicinity of Basra during the war, or their fathers were serving in the army and were exposed to (the material) in Kuwait," Al Jibowei said.

While attending an international conference in New York last year, the Iraqi research team met with U.S. Gulf War veterans to compare statistics.

"It was amazing the similarities in the birth defects between the U.S. and Iraqi babies," he said.

Any potential ground invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led forces would most likely be launched from Kuwait, and troops would have to pass straight up the Death Highway to Basra. The hulks of thousands of Iraqi vehicles still litter the sides of this highway. Although the aerosol from the coated shells has long since dissipated, Iraqi scientists believe the particles remain in the desert sands.

Uranium possesses a radioactive half-life of 200 million years and therefore, would still pose a serious risk.

Despite increasing evidence linking the material to degenerative health disorders, the British and American militaries steadfastly refuse to suspend their use of such weapons.

On Aug. 16 of this year at the annual UN Human Rights Convention, a motion was tabled to ban the use of depleted-uranium munitions until a full-scale medical survey can be conducted. Britain and the U.S. were the only two countries to vote against the motion.

It is a decision both countries could come to regret should hostilities erupt.

"If the Americans do attack us, they will inherit a hostile environment of radioactive toxicity," said Al Jibowei. "They will face the same tragedy that Iraq is already experiencing and suffering. Everyone will end up buried in Iraq."