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Afghanistan, Iraq and Depleted Uranium
By John Peterson
May 24, 2003
The damage caused by the rampaging US imperialist machine goes far beyond the thousands of dead civilians, bombed out infrastructure, and shattered nations. During the 1999 War on Yugoslavia, we predicted that depleted uranium ammunition was being used – which would result in negative long-term effects on the population and environment. Sadly, our prediction was confirmed. We explained the callousness and indifference of the imperialists to the suffering of the Iraqi and Yugoslav people, and to the effects of D.U. on their own troops:
“During the war, there were literally thousands of veterans who crawled into burned out Iraqi tanks looking for souvenirs. One study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles. There were also incidents of ammo trucks exploding - leaving a cloud of radioactivity hovering over Army bases. Also, in several friendly fire incidents, pieces of D.U. shrapnel made their way into allied soldiers. Other soldiers used smaller D.U. rounds or chunks of D.U. shrapnel and wore them as necklaces. Said one soldier, ‘We didn't know any better. We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U.’
“…However the effects of D.U. go far beyond the veterans of the Gulf War. The people of Iraq are the real losers in this disaster. At the end of the Gulf War, some 300 tons of expended D.U. materiel was left behind by US forces in Iraq and Kuwait. This represents a virtual toxic waste dump, which will haunt the region for decades.
“The dangers of low-level radioactive exposure are well documented. Frogs with nine legs, rabbits with four ears, fish with three eyes and worse have been found in areas of the world contaminated by nuclear waste. Since the end of the war, there has been a sharp rise in cases of leukemia, other forms of cancer, birth defects, and unexplained diseases in the southern Iraqi region of Basra. According to a report from the British Atomic Energy Authority leaked to the London Independent in November 1991, there was enough D.U. left behind to account for up to 500,000 potential deaths due to cancer. However, this figure was based on an estimate that only 40 tons of D.U. was left behind!”
According to the Associated Press, experts at the Pentagon and the United Nations now estimate that 1,100-2,200 tons of depleted uranium were used by U.S.-led coalition forces during their attack on Iraq in March and April of this year. This contrasts with about 375 tons used in the 1991 Gulf War, 11 tons fired during the 1999 war against Serbia over Kosovo, and a much smaller quantity used against rebel Serb positions in Bosnia in 1995.
Depleted uranium, or uranium-238, is a waste product of power-generating nuclear reactors and is 2.5 times denser than steel, and 1.7 times denser than lead. DU bullets and shells cut through conventional armor plating on tanks like paper. They emit almost no radiation before firing but burn in mid-air and vaporize after contact, spreading fine radioactive dust across a large area. It takes 4.5 billion years for the harmful effects of DU-238 to subside.
Physicist Doug Rokke, a member of the US military team charged with cleaning up depleted uranium following the 1991 war and now one of the most outspoken opponents of the weapons, said the task is much easier said than done. He recently told Al-Jazeera: “for each and every vehicle that is struck by a single uranium munition you have to take that entire vehicle, and physically remove it. Then you have to clean up all the uranium penetration that is left around that vehicle. Then you have to take a bulldozer, and go out to at least 100 meters and scrape down at least 10 centimeters and remove all of that dirt in order to make that area safe again.”
As we explained in 1999: “Thousands of Iraqi children picked up empty shells as toys, bringing them home and placing them in their homes. In one case, a little girl collected 12 of them, and died thereafter of leukemia. One researcher for the Austrian chapter of Yellow Cross International, gathered D.U. rounds in Iraq, but had them confiscated upon entering Germany. He was told that just one projectile emitted more radiation in five hours than is allowed per year under German regulations! To fully clean up such a mess would cost billions if it were even possible, and of course the Pentagon happily points out that ‘no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the U.S. to remediate Operation Desert Shield / Desert Storm battlefields.’”
So although they officially deny using these weapons, it comes as no surprise at all that there is increasing evidence that D.U. was used in Afghanistan, as well as during the latest war on Iraq. The new “cave-busting” bombs first used in Afghanistan are believed to use D.U. According to the Uranium Medical Research Center, “independent monitoring of the weapon types and delivery systems indicate that radioactive, toxic uranium alloys and hard-target uranium warheads were being used by the coalition forces.”
The UMRC says its team identified several hundred people suffering from illnesses and conditions similar to those of Gulf veterans, probably because they had inhaled uranium dust. They sent urine specimens from 17 Afghans for analysis at an independent UK laboratory. “Without exception, every person donating urine specimens tested positive for uranium internal contamination. The results were astounding: the donors presented concentrations of toxic and radioactive uranium isotopes between 100 and 400 times greater than in the Gulf veterans tested in 1999.”
Dr. Durakovic of the UMRC used three Afghans as a control group who showed no signs of contamination. They averaged 9.4 nanograms of uranium per liter of urine. The maximum permissible level for members of the public in the US is 12 nanograms per liter, with the average for his 17 randomly-selected patients was 315.5 nanograms. Some were from Jalalabad, and others from Kabul, Tora Bora, and Mazar-e-Sharif. A 12-year-old boy living near Kabul had an astonishing 2,031 nanograms. Subsequent visits indicate that the area thought to be contaminated is now much broader than originally thought.
Although one third of Gulf War veterans are on disability, and tens of thousands of them display symptoms, doctors from the Pentagon’s Deployment Health Support Directorate insist that DU could not be playing a role in causing cancer and birth defects – but do we really expect these “impartial” doctors to openly attack their paymasters? Instead, other factors are blamed for the symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome – pesticides, oil fires, etc. And yet Dr. Durakovic points out that “in Afghanistan there were no oil fires, no pesticides, nobody had been vaccinated - all explanations suggested for the Gulf veterans’ condition. But people had exactly the same symptoms. I’m certainly not saying Afghanistan was a vast experiment with new uranium weapons. But use your common sense.”
With the effects from the use of D.U. during the first Gulf War still wreaking havoc on the Iraqi population and American soldiers alike, there are fears that the problem will only be compounded after the latest war. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now live directly exposed to deadly radiation – unaware of the risks as their children play on the burnt out hulks of destroyed vehicles. While predictably denying publicly that these types of weapons were used, it doesn’t take much to put two and two together: six days before the war started on March 20, Colonel James Naughton of the US Army Materiel Command dismissed Iraqi complaints that DU was causing health problems. According to him, “they want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them.”
Several years after the 1991 Gulf War doctors at Baghdad's Al-Mansur hospital started noticing more and more children with an aggressive form of cancer. They were especially alarmed since the disease, acute myeloblastic leukemia, is closely associated with exposure to radiation. Dr. Salma Haddad explains that “many studies show a relationship between the use of depleted uranium weapons and an increase in cancer” – her department admits five times as many children with cancer than in 1991. After a decade of sanctions and yet another destructive war adding to the misery of the masses, Iraqi hospitals simply cannot cope with this situation.
Even though they deny using these weapons, the US and Britain (the only countries in the world which use D.U.) are adamant that their troops will keep using them - even though they are classed by the United Nations as an illegal weapon of mass destruction. So much for their flimsy excuse of ridding the world of WMDs! This will have a destructive effect on all future generations in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as on aid agency workers, “coalition” soldiers, etc. It is frankly tragic that we are forced to revisit this subject every couple of years. But as long as capitalism is allowed to dominate the planet, we will see these and even worse tragedies continue. Though we originally wrote these lines 2.5 years ago, they retain their relevance today:
“We have explained time and again that the capitalist system thrives only off profits - at the expense of anything in its way. It is like a juggernaut, crushing anything and anyone that gets in its way. The environment is being destroyed? Millions are malnourished and starving? Millions can't read or write? Thousands a year are killed or crippled in war? Millions are homeless? Chemicals and disease in our food? Millions of unemployed? Who cares! We can make more profit by cutting corners and squeezing the life out of the rest of humanity! This is the attitude of the ruling class of all countries towards the workers of the world. The use of DU ammunition and its horrific, long-lasting effects is just one example among countless others. There is nothing mystical in the fact that we "predicted" this tragedy in advance. Under capitalism human well-being will always be subordinated to profit. We have said it so many times that we almost needn't repeat ourselves - the only lasting, genuine solution to the ills of humanity is a World Socialist Federation with a democratic plan of production, distribution and exchange in harmony with the environment!”
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