Joanne Baker / Child Victims of War – 2004-10-12 08:56:28
“We cannot under any circumstances acquiesce in the non-utilisation of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails on the frontier.” — Winston Churchill
On March 28, 2003, a US A-10 aircraft fired into a convoy of five British vehicles near Basrah in a “friendly fire” incident. It was reported by the Guardian newspaper that the British troops who retrieved the bodies wore “chemical warfare suits… because of the threat from the depleted uranium used in American weapons”.
Two days later, on the morning of March 30, 2003, an Iraqi troop carrier passing through Kibla, a residential suburb of Basrah, broke down and signalled to a second troop carrier to come to its assistance. As the Iraqi soldiers were trying to sort out the mechanical problem, an A-10 fired rounds of depleted uranium ammunition into both vehicles causing instant inferno.
At the same time, two young men were entering a nearby house. Thinking they too were soldiers, the pilot targeted the house. The soldiers were incinerated, as were the two boys in the house, Jelaal and Nasir aged 21 and 18. A young cousin sustained severe burns on his leg.
A Cloud of Radioactive Gas
The explosive blasts created a plume of uranium oxide dust, some of it so fine that it entered the atmosphere as a gas. The heavier particles landed close to the vehicles and inside the building.
Neighbours and family buried the dead; the grieving parents and remaining eight children continued to live in what was left of their home, and dozens of local children played daily in and around the burnt-out vehicles. No one warned them of the nature of the bullets that had and would continue to cause so much death and destruction.
In July 2004, an Iraqi environmental scientist, who was researching DU, happened to be driving through Kibla with his fiancé. They were on the way to church to arrange their wedding. His fiancé mentioned to him that she always got a headache after passing some burnt-out vehicles in the area, so a few days later, he went to investigate.
His Geiger counter immediately told him that the area was radioactive and later, equipped with full radioactive gear, he cleaned the troop carriers and damaged area of the house to the best of his ability.
Radioactive Hot Spot Dismissed by British
He then went straight to the British military in Basrah, explained the situation and asked for their help. Apart from some sympathy from an environmental adviser, who has subsequently returned to the UK, the response was very dismissive and no action has been taken. The scientist also notified the World Health Organisation but has had no response at all.
A few weeks after, photographer Jenny Matthews, Dr Al-Ani and myself happened to be in Basrah and were taken to visit the family in Kibla. We walked around the burnt troop carriers and watched the rising dial of the Geiger counter, as wind whipped up the dust around us. Children were playing all around and were very excited to see us.
In the house, we spoke to the mother and daughters, two of whom, Ibtehal and Delaal, are suffering from breathing problems and skin rashes. A younger boy, Kemal who is now thirteen, is losing his night vision, and the burns sustained by their cousin Sa”d are still not healing properly.
Our own enquiries through the British Embassy in Basrah resulted in the following response: “The clean up of DU is the responsibility of the civil administration, with assistance from the international community, after any armed conflict.”
In this instance the civil administration is the Iraqi Interim Government and, we wonder, which bit of the international community? — Apparently not the US or UK.
Who Does the Clean-up? Who Gets Exposed?
After the war of 1991, 24 US vehicles caught in DU friendly fire were returned to the United States and it took three years to fully decontaminate them.
The clean-up of the environment itself, is of course not possible. Nature excels at recycling. Radioactive particles have already entered Iraq”s air, water, soil and vegetation and are working their way through the food chain. Nor do such particles respect “borders” — the wind, sun and rain will move them endlessly.
During the Gulf War of 1991, the US and Britain used up to 350 tons of DU shells in southern Iraq. They were used mainly on the tanks and trucks returning from Kuwait. Despite the fact that they were used mainly in a desert area, the health problems in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have escalated.
In Basrah childhood leukaemia has increased 7-fold, overall cancers 10-fold and birth deformities 20-fold. Many allied troops returning from the Gulf and the Balkans have suffered similarly.
A German doctor, Dr Siegfried Horst Guenther who studied the rare health effects in Iraq after 1991 also noted severe immunodeficiencies, AIDS-like syndromes, and kidney and liver dysfunction. Other noted symptoms are reactive airway disease, neurological problems, rashes, vision degradation and night vision losses, gum tissue problems, sexual dysfunction and neuro-psychological disorders.
Children Suffer Most from DU Dust
DU is both radioactive and chemically toxic and many doctors and scientists like Dr Guenther are convinced that the inhalation or ingestion of microscopic DU particles does have an adverse effect at a cellular level. Children, because of their fast cell growth, are particularly vulnerable.
Dr Alexandra Miller from the US Armed Forces Radiological Research Institute concludes that “DU compounds can transform cells into a state that appears to be able to induce tumors, based on the changes in the physical appearance of the cell, and based on the chemical changes induced in the cells by it, and other tumor-favoring changes”. She also states that the radioactive and toxic properties of DU seem to reinforce each other, thus causing more extensive damage.
DU Found in Bodies of US Troops
Depleted uranium has been found in the urine and tissue of sick veterans and civilians many years after the initial exposure, and chromosome testing by Dr Schott in Germany shows not only chromosomal damage to veterans exposed to DU but the same genetic damage in their children.
DU is known to enter the sperm and the ovary and can cross the placenta. This not only accounts for the high rise in congenital deformities but indicates that such deformities could be intergenerational. Young women like Ibtehal and Delaal must not only fear for their own health, but that of any children they may bear.
Some DU Contains Plutonium Isotopes
To compound the health problem, some of the DU used in munitions comes from the other end of the nuclear fuel cycle and is contaminated with artificial isotopes such as U-236 and plutonium and neptunium. As depleted uranium isotopes decay they become increasingly radioactive.
Moreover, according to Dr Dan Bishop, if Neptunium 235 is present, its short half-life will spike the radioactivity and will triple “the alpha radiation over natural uranium and double the total alpha, beta and gamma radiation over natural radiation”. The environmental and health effect of DU munitions could be far greater than is generally assumed.
Samples taken from civilians in Afghanistan by the Uranium Medical Research Centre also showed excessive levels of non-depleted uranium and one tissue sample from Basrah has shown the presence of enriched uranium.
The US Refuses to Account for Its Use of DU Weapons
The British have admitted to the use of 9 tons of uranium in the 2003 war — nine times more than in 1991, but the US refuses to be specific. The estimates range between 200 to 2,000 tons.
While the US and UK only admit to the use of DU in anti-tank penetrators, there is growing evidence that it is being used in a variety of other weapons.
High levels of radioactivity have been found in large bomb craters such as the Ma’moon telephone exchange in Baghdad which was hit by several bunker-busting bombs. The missiles cut through six layers of steel before exploding below ground level. This supports the contention that uranium is being used in some guided missiles to enhance the penetration of hard structures and to incinerate them. These large bombs could release significant amounts of uranium oxide into the atmosphere.
The difference between the war of 2003 and previous conflicts is that the use of uranium has been almost exclusively in urban, residential areas. The UK and US military justify this by saying that there are no known health effects from depleted uranium, yet are they really convinced?
In fact, the military and governments have known the health risks of depleted uranium for decades. In 1991, a UKAEA report stated:
“ The DU will be spread around the battlefield and target vehicles in varying sizes and quantities from dust particles to full size penetrators… localised contamination of vehicles and soil may exceed permissible limits and these could be hazardous to both clean-up teams and the local population”.
In 1995, the US Army environmental Policy Institute wrote:
“If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological”.
Military Practices Acknowledge DU Is Hazardous
All military personnel working with DU in the UK are classified radiation workers and subject to constant monitoring. Hard target testing, which took place in Eskmeals, Cumbria until 1995, was done under very strict conditions and it still costs the British tax payer £360 000 a year to maintain and protect the site.
DU rounds were fired at a hard target in a concrete bunker, known as the VJ Butt and in July 2000, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) made the following report:
“… a well-defined protocol is in place for workers required to enter the VJ Butt after test firing. Before they can do so, allowance is made for a cooling period during which cooling fans with three levels of air filtration are in operation. Members of the butt entry party are required to wear full protective clothing with pureflow hoods and carry personal air samplers.”
All well and good, but how can the use of the same material be justified, if it is targeting houses, buses and people in Iraq?
While there is acknowledged military advantage in using uranium against hard targets, it is very difficult to understand why it is also being used so liberally on “soft” targets.
In this last war on Iraq, these have included military personnel, cars, trucks, buses and houses. Even the Iraqi troop carriers hardly merited extreme penetrative force.
And where in places like Kibla are the air filters and pureflow hoods to be found? When Abdul Zahra Misbal Shindi buried his dead sons he was not, like the British soldiers, provided with a chemical suit.
Radioactive Hot Spots Being Found in Cities Across Iraq
Kibla is not alone. The same Iraqi scientist has discovered 26 radioactive sites in just one area of Basrah. In parts of Baghdad, radiation has been monitored as 1,000 and
1,900 times greater than normal background level and high recordings have been made in towns such as Samawah and Negev.
Our mission to Iraq in August was not to measure radiation, but to assess the needs of Iraqi children for our charity Child Victims of War. Basrah Children”s Hospital is crying out for even the most basic equipment to treat its ever growing numbers of young leukaemia and cancer patients.
Despairing doctors said that this was not really a cancer ward where children were treated, just a place where they came to die. Basrah is in desperate need of an oncology centre.
If even a few of the young children we met are dying from the allied use of radiological weapons, then the lack of medicine and pain relief created by the long years of sanctions and now occupation, compounds a most terrible crime.
Joanne Baker MSc is the Co-ordinator of
Child Victims of War, 14C Eccleston Road, London W13 0RL. +44 (0)20 8567 4237