by Ian Bruce, Defense Correspondent / The Herald –
LONDON (October 2, 2003) –The outbreak of pneumonia-like symptoms in US troops serving in Iraq could be the harbinger of a new and potentially enormous wave of Gulf war syndrome cases, according to American veterans’ organizations and defense analysts.
The groups are also braced for a huge rise in post-traumatic stress disorder casualties as a result of the daily exposure of soldiers to guerrilla attacks and the stress of round-the-clock living in a threat-filled environment.
More than 100 soldiers have succumbed to severe and as yet unexplained respiratory complaints. At least two fit, otherwise healthy men have died from complications.
Veterans’ groups claim the numbers affected by debilitating symptoms could easily outstrip the estimated 160,000 American and 5000 British troops who complained of illness after the 1991 Gulf conflict.
The ground war then lasted just 100 hours. The campaign this time took more than three weeks after the initial invasion. Now 140,000 troops are living for six months or longer on a battlefield polluted with radioactive depleted uranium dust and other chemical residues of war.
Many of those who reported diseases of the nervous system, the commonest effect attributed to Gulf war syndrome, blamed exposure to DU and pesticides, as well as the standard toxic compounds used in conventional military explosives.
Although neither the Pentagon nor the Ministry of Defense (MoD) is prepared to give figures for the use of depleted uranium ammunition, used in tank guns and by ground attack aircraft, military sources say up to 1000 tons was used during the recent advance on Baghdad.
This compares with 320 tons in 1991. British forces fired just 86 DU tank shells in the advance to liberate Kuwait 12 years ago. The MoD is now spending £170m to buy tungsten-cored shells to replace its stocks of controversial DU.
Captain Larry Seaquist, a retired naval officer and Pentagon strategist, said yesterday: “The recent regime change enterprise was a far dirtier and longer fight on the ground than the 1991campaign. That means longer exposure to harmful materials. Garrisons are now billeted where there was heavy fighting.
“It would also not be too surprising if stress casualties tied to longer periods in combat, extended tours of duty, and more urban fighting emerged. I think we can expect a bow-wave of problems still to come as units finally rotate home.”
A spokesman for Washington’s Center for Defense Information, an independent think-tank, added: “US forces in Iraq, and to a more limited extent British forces, include an unusually high percentage of reservists and part-time soldiers. Many of them are older than the regular troops, with wives, families and careers back home. There is something different about such individuals being pulled out of civilian life and shot up on active service. It’s an entirely different psychological impact. It’s a lesson America should have learned from Vietnam.”
Both the US and the UK have offered free voluntary medical screening to every member of the coalition forces who served in Iraq during the campaign or as peacekeepers in its aftermath.
Neither the British nor US governments has ever admitted the existence of Gulf war syndrome, claiming that although there are common threads among the thousands of veterans affected, there is no single binding cause for respiratory and neurological afflictions.
In Iraq yesterday, police opened fire to break up crowds of angry jobless Iraqis — including former soldiers demonstrating in Baghdad and Mosul as frustration at the country’s economic woes boiled over.
In another of the virtually daily attacks on occupying forces, a female US soldier was killed and three others were wounded by a bomb near a former palace used by the US military as an army xbase.
Her death was the 82nd of an American soldier since the end of combat on May 1.
The violence formed an uneasy backdrop to the start of the first school year since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April. The occupying powers are keen to present the return to school as a step towards normal life, although many lack books and equipment.
The volatility of post-war Iraq has kept the political spotlight on the decision by George W Bush and Tony Blair to go to war despite strong opposition from many countries.
In Washington, Republicans in the Senate pressed for speedy approval of Bush’s request for $87bn (£54bn) for Iraq and Afghanistan. Some lawmakers asked whether Iraqis should not eventually be required to pay back some of the money. A Democratic amendment calling for Iraq to use oil revenues to pay for some rebuilding costs was narrowly defeated.
A White House decision was imminent on a revised resolution to give the UN a larger role in Iraq’s reconstruction.