The Scourging of Iraq Part 2

The Gulf War, reinforced by comprehensive economic sanctions (many of which violated international law), transformed much of Iraq into a polluted radioactive environment. At the end of the war, the Iraqi and Kuwaiti deserts, and many urban sites, were littered with wrecked armaments, unexploded mines and other munitions, chemical pollutants and radioactive debris. There was evidence that the United States had contingency plans drawn up for the use of nuclear and chemical weapons against Iraq. Thus Major Johan Persson, a liaison officer at a Swedish army field hospital, testified in Stockholm that he had seen official guidelines concerning the allied use of nuclear and chemical weapons. Said Perrson: “There was such an order. I saw it. I had it in my hand.” U.S. Secretary of State James Baker declared to Tariq Aziz on 9 January, days before the start of the U.S. led bombing campaign that if Iraq were to use chemical weapons the U.S. ‘reply will be unrestrained’. From this Aziz understood – according to the authorative commentator Mohammed Heikal – ‘that Baker was hinting at the use of nuclear weapons.’ Paul Rogers, a defence, analyst at Bradford University’s school of peace studies, commented that both the US Marines and Navy were equipped with tactical nuclear weapons.

The use of nuclear weapons is widely condemned, not only because of the massive destructive power of such devices but also because the hazards of radioactive contamination are visited on succeeding generations thus UN General Assembly Resolution 32/84 (12 December 1977) condemns weapons of mass destruction, defined as ‘atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons developed in the future which might have the characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above’. Thus the American use of the BLU-82 fuel air explosive (FAE), a 15,000-pound device capable of producing ‘nuclear scale’ explosions to incinerate everything within hundreds of yards, stands condemned in international law. Similarly, DU ordinance, as a ‘radioactive material weapon’, is condemned by GA Resolution 32/84.In fact, such ordinance was widely used by the US and British forces in the War.

The allied forces left at least 40 tons of depleted uranium on the Gulf War battlefields according to a secret report produced by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (AEA). The report suggests that there was enough DU in Kuwait and southern Iraq to cause ‘500,000 potential deaths’. Commenting that this indicates ‘a significant problem’, the report states: ‘The DU will be around…in varying sizes and quantities from dust particles to full size penetrators and shot. It would be unwise for people to stay close to large quantities of DU for long periods and this would obviously be of concern to the local population if they collect this heavy metal and keep it. There will be specific areas in which many rounds will have been fired where localised contamination of vehicles and soil may exceed permissible limits and these could be hazardous to both clean up teams and the local population. ‘Though worry was expressed that ‘a political problem’ might be created by the environmental lobby (‘It is in both the Kuwait and the UK interest that this is not left to rear its head in the years to come’), nothing was being done. It was acknowledged that ‘if DU gets in the food chain or water this will create potential health problems’ but, according to a senior AEA official, talks about possible remedies ‘have not gone so quickly as we would have hoped’. Soldiers, mine clearing experts and reconstruction workers in Kuwait were told nothing of the hazards caused by the extent of radioactive contamination.

In the period after the Gulf War, Iraqi and international medical personnel noted a rapid increase in the number of childhood cancers, particularly leukaemia. At the same time UN and humanitarian aid workers were reporting that Iraqi children were playing with empty ammunition shells, tanks that had been destroyed by DU ordinance, and radioactive bullets that still litter wide areas of Iraq. It seemed reasonable to conclude that links existed (and continue to exist) between the radioactive debris – ‘radioactive bullets…now being used by many children in Iraq as toys’ – and the growing incidence of cancer. (It significant that the testing of DU penetrators in New Mexico has been linked to ground water poisoning; and that for similar reasons there has been fierce local opposition to the locating of test ranges in Minnesota and South Dakota.) In fact the hazards of DU ordinance are widely recognised. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has estimated that tank crews firing DU shells receive the equivalent of one chest X-RAY every 20 to 30 hours. When, in late 1992, the director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute arrived in Berlin carrying a DU penetrator found in Iraq he was immediately arrested and charged with ‘releasing ionising radiation’. The radioactive penetrator was quickly consigned to a lead-lined box. An Aid worker in Basra testified that he had witnessed a child playing with hand puppets made out of DU penetrator shells. Another child, known to have played with DU shells, later developed leukaemia.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority had warned the Ministry of Defence that children would be badly affected by radiation if DU ordinance were used in the Gulf. Thus a memorandum sent to the ministry noted that when DU shells strike tanks and other targets they through up ‘toxic and carcinogenic’ dust: ‘Children playing in or even looking in, burnt out vehicles, with such contamination set to last as long as the earth. Documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act stated that the American, British and Saudi armies fired about 4,000 depleted – uranium tipped tank rounds, and that US Air Force A-10 aircraft fired around 940,000 30mm bullets. The A10’s used DU ordinance against tanks, other armoured vehicles, trucks and roads. Here it is suggested that as much as 300 metric tons of radioactive uranium litter wide areas of Kuwait and Iraq, and that the ionising radiation (both alpha and gamma) is known to be carcinogenic. The US Army has admitted that some soldiers were unknowingly exposed to DU radiation during the Gulf War – a circumstance thought by many observers to have contributed to the so-called Gulf War Syndrome that continues to afflict tens of thousands of Coalition personnel

A research paper published in June 1994 by the Amsterdam based Stitching LAKA documentation centre noted that DU ordinance ‘passed the battlefield tests in Iraq'; and pointed out that supplying depleted uranium to the US forces was the cheapest way to dispose of nuclear waste. Again emphasis is given to the mounting evidence of the growing incidence of radiation linked diseases in the Iraqi population: ‘The new types of lingering morbidity introduced by the most toxic war in history will include an estimated 800 tons of DU dust and fragments that will continue blowing across the devastated Arabian peninsula ecosystem for enough decades into the future to make this process well known in the annals of medicine.’ In January 1992 the US Census Bureau estimated that life expectancy for the surviving Iraqi population had declined by 20years for men and 11years for women. Radioactive pollution had contributed to this situation. Nuclear bombs had not been used but Iraqi nuclear plant had been bombed, releasing radiation into the atmosphere, and the use of depleted uranium ordinance had ensured that massive volumes of radioactive substances would remain a permanent feature of the Iraqi environment.

Radioactive uranium was not the only pollutant inflicted on the Iraqi people. There are also scientific reports, from Iraqi sources, to suggest that toxic chemicals were used by the Coalition forces. Thus a detailed report produced by the non-governmental Iraqi Society for Environmental Protection and Improvement (ISEPI) claimed that the US led forces had resorted to chemical warfare in the Gulf. It is stated that the examined samples of vegetation, water, soil, blood and urine revealed the presence of highly poisonous myotoxins that were not indigenous to the region. Such trichothecene toxins are known to produce vomiting, diarrhoea, tachycardia, haemorrhaging, edema, skin lesions, nervous disorders, nausea, coma and death in human beings. In areas not exposed to bombing there is no evidence of such toxins. One Iraqi witness described a stinking yellow smoke that appeared after a rocket bombardment. The victims of alleged chemical attacks reportedly suffered from chest and stomach pains, vomiting with blood, nausea, vision impairment, rash blisters and other symptoms. Victims whose blood samples contained T-2 and HT-2 toxins suffered from vomiting, fever, headaches, backaches, swollen eyes and chest pains.

Massive volumes of pollutants were released when industrial plants, electrical power stations and oil facilities were bombed during the war. Some 20 main power plants, more then one hundred secondary power stations and scores of other industrial establishments were bombed between 17 January and 28 February 1991, with many of the sites bombed repeatedly. For example, the Daura refinery (Baghdad) and the North Oil refinery (Baiji) were both bombed twice, the South Oil Company and oil refineries in Basra were bombed several times, and the North Oil Company (Kirkuk) suffered 13 air raids. Tables 1.1 indicate the scale of the environmental damage caused by bombing raids on particular industrial establishments and power plants.

Substantial air and ground pollution was caused by the bombing of oil wells and other oil facilities. Thus at Basra alone the bombing caused the burning of 1.44 million barrels of oil, 12.6 million barrels of oil products, and 1.13 million cubic metres of natural gas. At Al-Anbar 240,000 barrels of oil were burned, as well as 72,000 tons of sulphur to generate sulphur oxides. At Al-Tamin some 30 million cubic metres of H2 S gas were burned, while 2.8 million barrels of oil products were burned at the Baiji refinery at Salah Aldin. At these and many other sites high concentrations of air and ground pollutants were monitored.

One estimate suggested that 1613 hectares of agricultural land had been destroyed; with high densities of hydrocarbons detected over large areas spreading hundreds of miles from the bombing induced fires. The high levels of air pollution – involving complex mixtures of sulphur products, hydrocarbons, nitrogen products, free radicals, aromatic compounds, etc – have been associated with unfamiliar plant and animal diseases (causing, for example, the destruction of thousands of eucalyptus trees and around 120,000 palm trees), in addition to the catastrophic deterioration in the health of the Iraqi civilian population.

High levels of environmental pollution were caused by the war and the punitive sanctions, now into there ninth year. The economic blockade means that Iraq has been denied the opportunity to begin social and economic reconstruction by importing the necessary goods and equipment. Today the US induced plight of millions of ordinary Iraqi civilians continues to deteriorate. Some observers have likened Iraq to a vast and forgotten concentration camp, denied the means to life and with no end in sight.

Extracted from the Scourging of Iraq by Geoff Simons, published by MacMillan, London.