Iraq War Could Be a Toxic Nightmare


Major casualties of a war with Iraq would be the region's fragile environment and the health of its inhabitants and combatants, if the last Persian Gulf conflict is anything to judge by, arms experts and activists say.

Eleven years ago, both sides in the Gulf War left Kuwait's ecosystems in chaos -- Iraq by torching oil wells as its soldiers retreated, and the United States by littering the desert with thousands of rounds of depleted uranium (DU) munitions.

DU is the trace element left over when uranium is enriched; most of the highly radioactive types of uranium are removed for use as nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons.

Deployed in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and in Kosovo in 1999, DU munitions are prized for their high density and ability to punch through walls and armoured vehicles.

According to the Washington-based Centre for Defence Information, the U.S. has four weapons that rely on DU and that could be used in a future war with Iraq: the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft, the Apache and Cobra helicopters, and the M1A1 Abrams Tank.

''These types of weapons will undoubtedly be used as Washington has made it clear it wants to bomb bunkers and kill as many of the Iraqi government leaders as possible,'' said John Catalinotto of the New York-based International Action Center, a leading critic of DU.

''This would lead to an even greater amount of DU being spread around Baghdad, this time, a city of five million people,'' he said.

Although the Pentagon insists that DU is not toxic or radioactive, many Iraqi survivors of the Gulf War believe differently. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that those most likely to be exposed to DU are aid workers and local populations living and working in contaminated areas.

''The Gulf War is the only indicator for the increase of cancer in Iraq,'' Loua'i Latif Kasha, a pathologist and director of Baghdad's Mansour Hospital, told Reuters news agency last week. ''The rate of cancer has risen five- to seven-fold more than before 1991.''

''Radiation pollution from depleted uranium bombs by itself causes cancer like leukaemia and thyroid,'' said Kasha.

Some Desert Storm veterans, who now suffer from disabilities and mysterious illnesses, are leery of sending troops back to the region.

''Science has absolutely shown that the illnesses Gulf War veterans face are not as a result of the stressors of war but as a result of exposures, unapproved vaccines, unapproved pills and a myriad of other things that have not yet been researched,'' said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Centre in Washington.

''Our government has ignored the Gulf War veteran experience of 1991. Will America stand by and watch another tragic event occur that could be avoided?'' he asked.

The Pentagon carried out numerous studies on DU, and concluded that it poses no significant health threat. It has not changed its stance, despite years of complaints from veterans groups.

Other independent experts also believe DU's toxicity has been exaggerated.

''In general, I think that these munitions are dangerous, but not for the reasons many opponents have argued,'' said Stephen Schwartz, editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. ''They're not harmless, but the health and environmental consequences of their use in the Gulf War and in Kosovo have been overstated.''

Still, peace groups and veterans' associations point out that no adequate explanation has ever been offered for the cluster of symptoms known as 'Gulf War Syndrome'.

In April, the Veterans Administration released a report that found that one-third of all troops sent to the Persian Gulf in 1991 have filed claims for medical problems. About 9,600 of the 200,000 Desert Storm veterans have died since the end of the war.

''While we were never sure which combination of factors caused the illness of over 100,000 U.S. service people in the Gulf in 1991, many of the same suspected factors will be present (in a future war),'' Catalinotto said.

''DU, widespread vaccinations, exposures to toxic materials destroyed by U.S. bombs will all be there again.''

Aside from DU - and possibly the use of biological and chemical weapons - environmentalists warn of more oil spills should U.S. forces invade Iraq, which is sitting on at least 112 billion barrels.

When Iraqi forces pulled out of Kuwait in 1991, they ignited more than 700 oil wells. Eight months elapsed before the fires could be put out. The resulting 10,000-square-mile cloud of soot darkened the sky to the point that cars had to use their headlights in the daytime.

About 11 million barrels of oil were also deliberately dumped by Iraq into the Arabian Gulf. A decade later, scientists assessing the damage found that while ocean ecosystems had mostly recovered, 40 percent of Kuwait's fresh water reserves were permanently ruined by lakes of oil that had seeped through the sand.

Green Cross International estimated the total environmental damage suffered by Kuwait at 40 billion dollars.

Environmental Media Services, which put out a fact sheet on the subject, says it makes very little sense for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to torch his own wells.

But the group notes that the size of the country and its oil wells would make it much more difficult to extinguish burning oil fields there, should they be ignited by a bombing campaign or for other reasons.

Some of the wells contain a significant amount of gas, and fire-fighters have much more difficulty controlling and capping this type of high-pressure well, the group says.

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