Lie of the millennium?

By Felicity Arbuthnot *

Al-Ahram Weekly On-line 15 - 21 March 2001 (Cairo)

On 9 January this year, the United Kingdom's Armed Forces Minister John Spellar addressed parliament regarding concerns over the use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons. For those who have followed the issue since these weapons were used in the 1991 Gulf War, his assertions that the harmful impact on the civilian population attributed to DU were grossly exaggerated were astonishing. Whether he was dramatically misled by his advisers or influenced by the "special relationship" that the UK has with Washington, he was being extremely economical with the truth.

The UN Sub-Committee on Minorities and Human Rights has charged three times that these are weapons of mass destruction, which bolsters the case for eventual compensation claims -- expected to run into the billions of dollars -- by countries where they have been used or tested and by civilians and soldiers for illnesses linked to DU exposure.

Just 10 months after the Gulf War, Iraqi doctors were already bewildered by the rise in rare cancers and birth deformities. At the time, it was not known that DU weapons had been used in the war, but the doctors were already comparing their new cases to those they had seen in textbooks related to nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s.

In Basra, the main city of southern Iraq which was in the eye of "desert storm," paediatrician Dr Jenan Hussein has completed a thesis comparing the cancers and birth deformities seen in Iraq with those following the bombing of Hiroshima. Cancers, leukaemias and malignancies -- all of which have been linked to DU -- have risen by 70 per cent since 1991. Experts say that DU has entered the food chain via the water table and soil.

Death stalks children of Basra from the moment of birth. The unimaginable can be found: babies with twisted limbs, or without any limbs, eyes, or brain -- or even without a head. "If you are not prone to fainting, I will show you a baby born just an hour ago," Dr Jenan said during one of my visits. The tiny infant had no eyes, nose, tongue, oesophagus, or genitalia. The impossibly twisted legs were joined by a thick web of flesh. "We see many similar cases," she said.

Having seen the result of their use, it is not difficult to understand why former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark considers the use of DU weapons a "criminal act."

Gulf War veterans began showing signs of illness just months after the war. Their search for treatment and answers has been met with bureaucratic stonewalling and lies. As the veterans, sick and dying, have attempted to find answers for themselves in the UK, their homes have been raided by police from the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

A 1996 survey of US Gulf War veterans in the small Mississippi town of McGann showed that out of 267 families questioned, 67 per cent of children conceived after their fathers had returned from the Gulf had rare birth deformities.

That both the British and American authorities knew of the dangers of DU and ignored them is beyond doubt.

DU weapons were born of greed. Depleted uranium is essentially a waste product of the nuclear industry. Since no one wants it in their backyard and its disposal is hugely costly, it was given free to the weapons industry to be used as core and coating for bullets, missiles and tanks.

"Depleted uranium is a radioactive waste and, as such, should be deposited in a licensed repository," according to a June 1995 statement by the US Army Environmental Policy Institute.

At no point does it advise its use on mosques, schools, hospitals, radio stations or a Chinese embassy.

"Basically, DU missiles are just cylinders of nuclear waste with fins," comments Angus Parker, a sick veteran and former expert technician at Britain's Porton Down weapons establishment, who was deployed in the Gulf with the First Field Laboratory Unit.

A spokesperson for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) told Al-Ahram Weekly of its astonishment upon discovering that these weapons had been used in the Gulf. Uninformed by the government at the time of the war, the UKAEA only learned of the use of DU weapons from reports in the media. So alarmed was the UKAEA that it sent a report to the Ministry of Defence in April 1991, warning of a health and environmental catastrophe. They estimated that if 50 tonnes of DU dust were left over from the impact of DU weapons, there could be in excess of half a million deaths from cancer in the region within 10 years.

The Pentagon has confirmed that 320 tonnes of DU dust remain in Iraq. Some scientists estimate that there could be as much as 900 tonnes. The UKAEA paper, entitled "Kuwait -- Depleted Uranium Contamination," states: "DU can become a long-term problem if not dealt with and is a risk to both the military and civilian population." The UKAEA's calculations indicate a significant problem. Further localised contamination of vehicles and soil may exceed permissible limits and this would be hazardous to both clean-up teams and the local population. Inhalation of DU dust particles can lead to unacceptable body burdens, putting the public at risk. DU is dangerous whether taken into the body by ingestion or by contamination of a cut. Furthermore, DU entering the food chain or water magnifies potential health problems. DU remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years.

That the UK government has long been aware of the unique contamination that DU represents was displayed in a rare moment of glasnost by UK Armed Forces Minister Lord Gilbert on 2 March 1998, when he referred to a letter written on 30 April 1991 -- two months after the Gulf War -- by P G E Bartholomew, business development manager at UKAEA. "I promised to produce a threat paper on the contamination of Kuwait from depleted uranium used by the US and UK forces in the recent war. [The paper] covers the threat and outlines the action we believe is necessary for health safety," Bartholomew's letter reads. "The whole subject of the contamination of Kuwait is emotive and thus must be dealt with in a sensitive manner. It is necessary to inform the Kuwait government of the problem in a useful way."

This poisoned chalice," suggests the letter, "should be handed to the luckless British ambassador in Kuwait. (The good news is that we've saved you from Saddam -- the bad news is...)."

Kuwait, it seems, had been saved from Saddam, but, along with Iraq and the veterans of the war, would live with the consequences -- sickness and genetic defects -- for generations.

Leonard Dietz, an eminent nuclear expert based in New York, has passed another enlightening letter to Al-Ahram Weekly. Dated 15 August 1991, the letter is a response to Dietz from the Office of the Director of Defence Research and Engineering at the Department of Defence in Washington. "You posed the question of the probability that lung cancer could develop after the inhalation of depleted uranium. As you are no doubt well aware, since the material is a source of ionising radiation, the potential for carcinogicity is real," the letter states. "The same holds true for nephro-toxicity protection, which requires a much lower ambient concentration in drinking water or foodstuffs." The letter, signed by the Military Assistant for Medical and Life Sciences, concludes: "Let me assure you that we feel that your concern, which parallels our own, is real and we thank you for sharing that with us."

After the Gulf War, it is the turn of the Balkans -- its population and the soldiers who served there -- to live the DU tragedy. Seven Italian peace-keepers have already died of leukaemia. Other countries with military personnel deployed in the Balkans during the conflict with Yugoslavia all report unusual illnesses and have begun to screen soldiers.

Dr Chris Busby, head of Britain's Low Level Radiation Campaign, has estimated that the relative radiation risk to the Italian peace-keepers in Kosovo (closest to the most contaminated area) is 17 times the "safe" limit.

On the day ground troops were sent into the Balkans, this correspondent asked the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) if we would soon see an epidemic of "Balkans War syndrome," since DU weapons were again being used despite the overwhelming evidence of the danger they represented. "Absolutely not," responded the MOD spokesperson. "The armed forces minister has given the strictest instructions that no service personnel must approach anything which might have been hit by DU -- and if it were unavoidable they must wear full radiological protective clothing."

What about the returning refugees? What about Iraq? Was a different sort of DU being used in the Balkans, since the MOD had consistently denied any link between the health disaster in Iraq and the pattern of illness among Gulf War veterans? For the MOD, refugees were not its problem and it insisted that DU, Gulf War syndrome and Iraq were not linked.

Yet peace-keeping troops in Kosovo now have their food and water flown in.

Refugees have, it seems, returned to a poisoned land and, as in Iraq and Kuwait, generations yet unborn will pay the price. Macedonia, the poorest of the Balkan states, took in a million refugees during the 1998 Balkans War only to find out that 10 tonnes of DU debris had contaminated their land. The Macedonians have collected it and are considering returning it to NATO. Belgrade's Centre for Radiobiology and Radiation Protection has reported that radiation in Macedonia is eight times that of pre-1998 levels.

Albania, where two American A-10 helicopters equipped with DU weapons crashed, can be added to the list of countries made radioactive and chemically toxic by DU. It is now another place where parents and their children have nowhere to hide. Following the Balkans War, the Albanian president awarded NATO spokesman Jamie Shea and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright the country's highest honours. The ceremony referred to Shea, who defended NATO actions to a worldwide audience, as a "face of truth and hope." Albania may soon want to ask for the trophies back.

The full extent of the contamination of the Balkans is still unknown -- radiation does not stop at borders.

Meanwhile, in Kuwait City, just a few kilometres from Basra, on the day Kuwait hosted a reception for senior US military and government personnel active in the Gulf War, Kuwait's First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah said the Western allied forces had left no nuclear radiation after the war. "I am sure the Kuwaiti territories are free of these radiations," Al-Sabah told the Kuwait News Agency. Professor Doug Rokke, the Pentagon expert who devised the clean-up for Kuwait, has told Al-Ahram Weekly that this is simply "impossible" and that the clean-up was, in fact, never completed. Half of his team has died of DU-related illnesses and the other half, including himself, is desperately sick -- with the exception of the only team member who insisted on wearing full radiological protective clothing, despite the heat.

The reasoning behind the ongoing campaign of deception is made clearer by a Los Alamos National Laboratory (the same lab that developed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) memo entitled "The Effectiveness of Depleted Uranium Penetrators." Dated 1 March 1991, the day after the Gulf cease-fire and the day before the slaughter on the Basra road using DU weapons, the memo is from a Lt Colonel Larson to a Major Ziehman. "There is a relatively small amount of lethality data for uranium penetrators... The recent war has likely multiplied the number of DU rounds fired at targets by orders of magnitude. There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment," Larson's memo reads. "Therefore if no one makes the case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and [will] therefore be deleted from the arsenal," it continues. The memo ends: "I believe we should keep this sensitive issue in mind, when, after action, reports are written."

Dr Jenan in Basra is more concerned about her patients than about kill-rates: "I want the world to know what has happened here."

The time for lying is over. Those responsible should face up to the enormity of their actions. A clean-up of this truly genocidal material, wherever it contaminates, must be undertaken at once. And we must ensure that it is never used again.

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* The writer is a British-based journalist who has written extensively on the impact of DU and was nominated by Amnesty International as humanitarian journalist of the year. She has recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Iraq