US Admits It Has Used Radioactive Weapons in Syria
November 29, 2016 International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons & Samuel Oakford / IRIN News
The US has admits that it fired radioactive Depleted Uranium weapons on two occasions in Syria in November 2015, contrary to earlier claims. The Pentagon's justification for use was unclear after target analysis triggering calls for full disclosure and demands to extend harm-reduction measures. Russia took advantage of the news to distract attention from its own conduct in the conflict.
United States Confirms that It Has
Fired Depleted Uranium in Syria International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW)
(October 16, 2016) -- The US has finally confirmed that it has fired DU ammunition Syria, after it had earlier stated that the weapons would not be used. US Central Command (CENTCOM) has acknowledged that DU was fired on two dates -- the 18 and 23 November 2015. Between the strikes on the two dates, 5,100 rounds of 30mm DU ammunition were used by A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. This equates to 1,524kg of DU. CENTCOM said that the ammunition was selected because of the "nature of the targets".
This US strike against an Islamic State fuel truck convoy on 18 November 2015 may have involved DU.
The news comes as governments are debating a UN General Assembly resolution on DU weapons in New York. And, although DU use has only been admitted on two dates, ICBUW and PAX are concerned that this disclosure could be the sign that DU has, or will, be used more widely in the conflict.
In March 2015, and following the deployment of A-10s to the conflict, the US had confirmed to journalists that the aircraft would not be armed with DU, stating: "US and Coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve."
Justifying the decision, CENTCOM public affairs explained that: "The ammunition is developed to destroy tanks on a conventional battlefield; Daesh does not possess large numbers of tanks."
CENTCOM Confirms DU Use
IRIN news finally extracted the confirmation that DU had been used from CENTCOM on October 20, and after weeks of denials. The revelations first came to light after an aide to Congresswoman Martha McSally (Rep, AZ) -- herself a former A-10 combat pilot -- responded to a question from DU activist, and constituent, Jack Cohen-Joppa.
However a number of CENTCOM sources initially denied that the information was accurate. Confirming that the data were indeed accurate, a spokesperson for CENTCOM said earlier denials were due to "an error in reporting down range."
"Without the chance disclosure from McSally's office, and the dogged pursuit of CENTCOM by IRIN, the US would not have volunteered this data," said ICBUW Coordinator Doug Weir. "Sadly this is typical of the poor transparency we have seen from the US and we urge CENTCOM and the Coalition to clarify their policy on DU use in Syria and explain how its use fits with its public claims that the ammunition is solely for use against armoured targets."
A 10 THUNDERBOLT with the Infamous GAU 8 Gatling gun which can fire the depleted uranium rounds as well as conventional ammunitions
Unclear Why DU Was Used
The US regularly states that DU ammunition is specifically used only for engaging armoured targets, in accordance with its own legal guidelines, although evidence from a number of conflicts has shown that these guidelines are commonly ignored. ICBUW had earlier analysed the target information released by CENTCOM for the two dates in question.
On neither date did CENTCOM explicitly state that it had launched attacks against armoured vehicles, with the majority of strikes against Islamic State light tactical vehicles, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and oil infrastructure. Such targets have been attacked regularly by the US-led Coalition, apparently without resorting to the use of DU.
The most unusual strike that ICBUW identified took place on the 18th November, when the US attacked 283 parked oil tankers, however the A-10's alternative 30mm ammunition type -- a high explosive incendiary round -- would presumably have been sufficient to destroy tankers laden with oil. Footage released from the strike is indicative of 30mm DU use.
Recently published data from the 2003 Iraq War showed that A-10s used more DU against targets that were not tanks or armoured vehicles, questioning the current US justification that DU was needed in Syria. Historic data from the Gulf War also demonstrated that most armoured targets destroyed by A-10s were targeted by Maverick missiles, not DU.
A-10 'Warthogs' are used to deliver depleted uranium weapons
What Must Happen Now
ICBUW and PAX are calling for urgent clarification from the US authorities on both the incidents and its DU policy for the conflict, and for them to swiftly release detailed and accurate targeting data to ensure that the relevant authorities can conduct clearance and risk awareness efforts and isolate and recover contaminated material.
"Given DU's nature as a toxic and radioactive heavy metal, and concerns previously expressed by Syrian civilians that it might be used, it's deeply worrying that the US chose to use DU again," said PAX's researcher Wim Zwijnenburg. "The US should provide all target data and technical assistance to mine-clearance organisations and local authorities to ensure that swift clean-up operations for this low-level radioactive waste is undertaken to prevent Syrian civilians being exposed."
"Public Relations Efforts Are Indicated"
The US has long been conscious of the stigmatisation of the use of DU weapons. As far back as 1991 the US military were advised that: ". . . fielding and combat activities [with DU] present the potential for adverse international reaction." It was therefore predictable that Russian state media quickly highlighted news that DU had been used in Syria, with Russia's embassies in Paris, Ottawa and London tweeting the news, as Russia sought to draw attention away from its own conduct in the conflict.
Russia has its own stocks of DU weapons and consistently abstains on DU resolutions [http://www.bandepleteduranium.org/en/statement-on-depleted-uranium-weapons-unga71] at the UN General Assembly. It seems inevitable that, given the widespread global opposition to the use of the weapons, the Russian and Syrian governments will continue to use the news that DU has been used against the US and its coalition allies.
An analysis of recently declassified military data shows that the United States military ignored its own guidelines for the use of depleted uranium ammunition in the 2003 Iraq War, firing the controversial weapons at unarmoured targets, buildings in populated areas and troops.
It has also tripled the number of sites known to be contaminated in Iraq to more than 1,000; even as fears grow that the US has used depleted uranium in Syria. Newly released targeting data show that A-10 aircraft used DU against a far wider range of targets than previously acknowledged, breaching USAF legal guidelines.
(October 5, 2016) -- The targeting data, which details the use of 30mm DU ammunition by USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft -- or "Warthogs", was released under FOIA and accounts for 54,000kg of the 118,000kg of DU ammunition that the US and UK have acknowledged firing in the conflict. Analysis by PAX and ICBUW of the 1,116 strikes, which took place during the first month of the 2003 invasion, and published in a new report,Targets of Opportunity shows that DU use was widespread across Iraq.
For the first time, the data also reveal that the majority of targets attacked with the radioactive and chemically toxic weapons were not armoured. This runs counter to claims by the US that the A10's ammunition is specifically for destroying tanks and other armoured vehicles.
A significant number of the 182,000 30mm PGU-14/B rounds fired by the aircraft -- each of which contains 298g of DU -- were also fired in or near populated areas, increasing the likelihood that civilians would be exposed. Chart from Targets of Opportunity showing the types of targets attacked by A-10s, less than half of the targets were armoured vehicles.
The need to destroy armour is central to the US's ongoing military justification for the use of the weapons, which place civilians at risk of exposure and leave a complex and costly legacy for years after the end of conflicts. The US's own legal guidelines, which were placed on the use of the armour-piercing incendiary weapons in 1975, restricts their use to armoured vehicles, a restriction that appears to have been ignored in the 2003 conflict.
Little Transparency, Even Less Assistance
While the UK released information to the UN on where it fired 1,900kg of DU, the US is still withholding data on where it fired 62,000kg of the weapons. This is hampering clearance work. PAX has reported that Iraq continues to struggle with the identification and remediation of DU contaminated sites, and the country has called for assistance in doing so from the international community.
"With the current burden of fighting the Islamic State, the Iraqi government's capacity is already stretched. But people are worried about DU contamination, especially in southern Iraq," says one of the report's authors, PAX's Wim Zwijnenburg: "The US did too little, too late, and now Iraq's people are facing layer upon layer of toxic health risks as a result of the conflicts."
"At present countries that use DU weapons, or are affected by them, are under no formal obligations to clear contamination after conflicts in order to minimise the risks it poses to civilians," said co-author Doug Weir from ICBUW. "This is in stark contrast to land mines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war. Governments must take steps to meaningfully address the legacy from DU and other toxic remnants of war that can harm civilians and their environment for years after the end of conflicts."
New Information Suggests that
A-10s Have Used DU in Syria
In early 2015, the US stated -- contrary to previous claims -- that its A-10 aircraft had not and would not use DU in Iraq or Syria in operations against Islamic State. However information obtained by ICBUW suggests that US A-10s have used DU on at least two occasions in Syria.
ICBUW and PAX are calling for urgent clarification from the US authorities on both the incidents and its DU policy for the conflict, and for them to swiftly release the targeting data to ensure that the relevant authorities can conduct clearance and risk awareness efforts and to isolate and recover contaminated material.
A new resolution on DU weapons will be voted on by governments at the UN General Assembly this month.
Targets of Opportunity: Analysis of the Use of Depleted Uranium by A-10s in the 2003 Iraq War PAX and ICBUW
Targets of Opportunity reveals for the first time the extent to which the US breached its own restrictions on the use of DU in the 2003 Iraq War. Fewer than half of all targets attacked by A10 aircraft were armored and many were in populated areas. The report triples the number of sites known to be contaminated with DU and also analyses whether norms on data sharing and clearance of DU are emerging.
EXCLUSIVE: Iraq War Records Reignite
Debate over US Use of Depleted Uranium Data to be made public this week reveals the extent to which the weapons were used on "soft targets" Samuel Oakford / IRIN News
NEW YORK (October 6, 2016) -- Records detailing as many as 181,000 rounds of depleted uranium munitions shot in 2003 by American forces in Iraq have been unearthed by researchers, representing the most significant public documentation of the controversial armament's use during the US-led invasion.
The cache, released to George Washington University in 2013 but until now not made public, shows that a majority of the 1,116 sorties carried out by A-10 jet crews during March and April of 2003 were aimed at so-called "soft targets" like cars and trucks, as well as buildings and troop positions. This runs parallel to accounts that the munitions were used on a wide array of targets and not just against the tanks and armoured vehicles that the Pentagon maintains super-penetrative DU munitions are intended for.
The strike logs were originally handed over in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by George Washington University's National Security Archive, but were not evaluated and analysed independently until now.
Earlier this year, the Archive provided the records to researchers at the Dutch NGO PAX, and an advocacy group, the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW), who were fishing for new information. IRIN obtained both the data and analysis done by PAX and ICBUW, which is contained in a report that will be published later this week.
Confirmation that the munitions were used more indiscriminately than previously acknowledged could renew calls for scientists to look deeper into the health effects of DU on civilian populations in conflict areas. The munitions have been suspected -- but never conclusively proven -- of causing cancer and birth defects, among other issues.
But as a function of both the continued insecurity in Iraq and an apparent unwillingness on the part of the US government to share data and conduct research, there remains a dearth of epidemiological studies in Iraq. This has created a vacuum in which theories have proliferated about DU, some conspiratorial.
Knowledge that DU was shot across the country, but confusion over where and in what quantities has been frustrating for Iraqis, who are now once more facing a landscape wracked by war, death, and displacement.
Today, the same A-10 planes are once more flying over Iraq, as well as Syria, where they target forces of so-called Islamic State. Though US military press officers say DU has not been fired, there are no Pentagon restrictions against doing so, and contradictory information provided to Congress has raised questions over its possible deployment last year.
The Scientific Haze
Depleted uranium is what's left over when the highly radioactive substance uranium-235 is enriched -- its isotopes are separated in a process that's used to make both nuclear bombs and energy.
DU is less radioactive than the original, but is still considered a toxic chemical and a "radiation health hazard when inside the body", according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Many doctors believe any possible negative health effects would most likely stem from the inhalation of particles after a DU weapon is used, though ingestion is also a concern. Though studies have been carried out in laboratory settings and on small numbers of veterans, no extensive medical research has been carried out on civilian populations exposed to DU in conflict areas, including Iraq.
There is "very limited credible direct epidemiological evidence" proving a correlation between DU and health effects in these settings, David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, explained to IRIN. After first finding an ailment to track -- for instance lung cancer -- Brenner said such a study would need to "identify the exposed population, and then quantify what were the exposures to each individual". That's where the targeting data comes into play.
The data may also be useful for clean-up efforts, if they were ever to be done on a large scale. But only 783 of the 1,116 flight logs contain specific locations, and the US has not released such data for the first Gulf War, when more than 700,000 rounds were fired. Activists have dubbed that conflict "the most toxic" in history.
783 of the 1,116 flight logs contain specific locations [Scroll to view entire map]
Within the United States, DU is tightly controlled, with limits on how much can be stored at military sites, and clean-up protocols are followed at firing ranges. In 1991, when a fire broke out at an American military base in Kuwait and DU munitions contaminated the area, the US government paid for the clean-up and had 11,000 cubic metres of soil removed and shipped back to the US for storage.
Fearing that spent DU rounds could remain dangerous for years, experts say such steps -- and similar ones taken in the Balkans after conflicts there -- should still be carried out in Iraq. But first of all, authorities would need to know where to look.
"You can't say meaningful things about the risk of DU if you don't have a meaningful baseline of where weapons have been used and what steps have been taken," said Doug Weir, international coordinator at ICBUW.
What the Data Shows -- And What It Doesn't
With the release of this new data, researchers are closer to this baseline than ever before, although the picture is still not nearly complete. More than 300,000 DU rounds are estimated to have been fired during the 2003 war, mostly by the US.
The FOIA release, issued by US Central Command (CENTCOM), increases the number of known sites with potential DU contamination from the 2003 war to more than 1,100 -- three times as many as the 350 that officials at Iraq's environment ministry told PAX it was aware of and attempting to clean up.
Some 227,000 rounds of so-called "combat mix" -- a combination of mostly Armour-Piercing Incendiary (API) munitions, which contain DU, and High-Explosive Incendiary (HEI) munitions -- were reported fired in the sorties. At CENTCOM's own estimated ratio of 4 API to every HEI munition, researchers arrived at a total of 181,606 rounds of DU spent.
While the 2013 FOIA release is extensive, it still doesn't include data from US tanks, or reference to possible contamination emanating from storage sites during the war, or anything about the use of DU by US allies. The UK has provided information related to limited firing by British tanks in 2003 to the UN's environmental agency, UNEP.
The new data shows DU munitions were used on a wide array of targets. [Scroll to view entire image]
A 1975 US Air Force review recommended that DU weapons be siloed only "for use against tanks, armoured personnel carriers or other hard targets". It was suggested that deployment of DU against personnel be prohibited unless no other suitable weapons are available. The new firing records, wrote PAX and ICBUW in their analysis, "clearly demonstrate that the restrictions proposed in the review have been largely ignored". Indeed, only 33.2 percent of the 1,116 targets listed were tanks or armoured vehicles.
"It clearly shows that despite all the arguments given by the US, that the A-10s are needed to defeat armour, most of what was hit were unarmoured targets, and a substantial amount of those targets were near populated areas," Wim Zwijnenburg, senior researcher at PAX, told IRIN.
The Legal Haze
Unlike mines and cluster munitions, as well as biological or chemical weapons -- even blinding lasers -- there is no treaty dedicated to regulating the production or use of DU weapons.
"The legality of using DU in armed conflict situations is indeterminate," Beth Van Schaack, professor of human rights at Stanford University, and a former US State Department official, told IRIN.
The customary international law of armed conflict includes bans on weapons that may be expected to cause long-term harm and prohibitions on methods of warfare that cause superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering. "Absent better data on the immediate and long-term effects of DU on human health and the natural environment, however, it is difficult to apply these norms with any specificity," said Van Schaack.
In a 2014 UN report, the Iraqi government expressed "its deep concern over the harmful effects" of depleted uranium deployed in conflicts and called for a treaty banning its use and transfer. It called on countries that have used such weapons in conflict to provide local authorities "with detailed information about the location of the areas of use and amounts used," in order to assess and potentially contain contamination.
Silence and Confusion
Pekka Haavisto, who chaired UNEP's post-conflict work in Iraq during 2003, told IRIN it was commonly known at the time that DU munitions hit buildings and other non-armoured targets with regularity.
Though his team in Iraq was not officially tasked with surveying DU use, signs of it were everywhere, he said. In Baghdad, ministry buildings were marked with damage from DU munitions, which UN experts could clearly make out. By the time Haavisto and his colleagues left Iraq following a 2003 bombing that targeted the Baghdad hotel serving as UN headquarters, he said there were few signs that American-led forces felt obliged to clean up DU or even notify Iraqis of where it had been shot.
"When we dealt with the DU issue, we could see that the militaries who used it had quite strong protection measures for their own personnel," said Haavisto, currently a member of Parliament in Finland.
"But then the similar logic is not valid when you speak about the people who live in the locations where it has been targeted -- that of course was a bit disturbing for me. If you think it can put your military in hazard, of course there are similar hazards for people who after the war are living in similar circumstances."
Several towns and cities in Iraq, including Fallujah, have reported congenital birth defects that locals suspect may be linked to DU or other war materials. Even if they are not related to to DU use -- Fallujah, for instance, barely features in the FOIA release -- researchers say full disclosure of DU target location is as important for ruling it out as the cause.
"Not only is [the new] data concerning, but the gaps in it are too," said Jeena Shah, a professor of law at Rutgers University who has helped advocates try to pry targeting logs from the US government. Both US veterans and Iraqis, she said, need all data on toxic munitions, so authorities can "conduct remediation of toxic sites to protect future generations of Iraqis, and provide necessary medical care to those harmed by the use of these materials".
Is DU Back?
This week, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to IRIN that there is no "policy restriction on the use of DU in Counter-ISIL operations" in either Iraq or Syria.
And while the US Air Force repeatedly denied that DU munitions have been used by A-10s during those operations, Air Force officials have given a different version of events to at least one member of Congress. In May, at the request of a constituent, the office of Arizona Representative Martha McSally -- a former A-10 pilot with A-10s based in her district -- asked if DU munitions had been used in either Syria or Iraq.
An Air Force congressional liaison officer replied in an email that American forces had in fact shot 6,479 rounds of "Combat Mix" in Syria over two days -- "the 18th and 23rd of Nov 2015". The officer explained the mix "has a 5 to 1 ratio of API (DU) to HEI".
"So with that said, we have expended ~5,100 rounds of API," he wrote, referring to DU rounds.
Update: On 20 October, CENTCOM officially confirmed to IRIN that the US-led coalition had fired rounds of depleted uranium (DU) munitions at targets in Syria on the 18 and 23 November 2015. It said that the munitions were chosen due to the nature of targets on those days. A spokesperson for CENTCOM said earlier denials were due to "an error in reporting down range."
Those dates fell within an intense period of US-led strikes against IS oil infrastructure and transport vehicles, dubbed "Tidal Wave II". According to coalition press statements, hundreds of oil trucks were destroyed in the second half of November in Syria, including 283 alone on 22 November.
The content of the emails and the Air Force's response were originally forwarded to local anti-nuclear activist Jack Cohen-Joppa, who shared them with IRIN. McSally's office later confirmed the content of both. Reached this week, multiple US officials could not explain the discrepancy.
Samuel Oakford is a freelance journalist based in New York, and regular IRIN contributor.
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