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Peacekeepers not Informed about Depleted Uranium in South Iraq

by RISQ.ORG Wednesday, Jul. 30, 2003 at 12:14 PM 00131294458011

As the UN-backed ‘stabilisation force’ in Iraq (SFIR) is taking shape, peacekeepers are not well informed about the risks of DU contamination, since the US government refuses to disclose information on DU firing locations. Dutch troops arriving in the southern province of Al Muthanna are particularly ill-informed, as the Dutch government has unduly asserted that "no DU ammunition was used in the area during the recent conflict". If this information comes from US officials, as the government claims, it has been deceived--as much as it has misinformed parliament.

by Maarten H.J. van den Berg

Read the Full Report on the RISQ website

Report Summary

Apart from the Netherlands, other countries that have agreed to participate in SFIR include Poland, Italy and Japan whereas India recently decided not to sent any peacekeepers, unless a more explicit UN mandate were to materialize.

Of course, the mission is not without risks. As the ongoing assaults on US troops in and around Baghdad and the recent killing of six British troops indicate, post-Saddam Iraq is all but stable and secure. Nonetheless, the Dutch government assured concerned MPs, “the security situation in the South of Iraq may be described as reasonably stable”.

Some MPs raised questions about the use of DU (depleted uranium) during the war, and its repercussions for the safety of civilians and army personnel in the area. On this issue, too, the government assured, there was no cause for concern as “no significant fighting has taken place in the province of Al Muthanna”. Besides that, according to Minister of Defence, no DU ammunition was used in the area during the recent conflict.

The assertion that no significant fighting took place in the area is so blatantly belied by open sources, that one wonders if any of the Ministers ever reads a newspaper. The capital of the province, As Samawah, is strategically located on the road from Basra to Baghdad, providing access to a bridge over the Euphrates river. Consequently, on its march to Baghdad, the US army anticipated some resistance there. In fact, it would encounter rather fierce resistance both from Iraqi forces, including Saddam Feyadeen paramilitaries and Baath party militias, as well as a group of Syrian volunteers, according to American officers . Reportedly, it took just one day to take the bridge but more than a week before the town and the road were cleared of all ‘pockets of resistance’ . 112 civilians, most of them inhabitants of As Samawah, were killed in the battle.

Despite such incidents, the Dutch government persists in depicting Al Muthanna as a remote, barely inhabited desert where no noteworthy events have occurred. In fact, as far as recent military activities are concerned, it was part and parcel of the ‘theatre of operations’.

For that matter, the assertion that “no DU ammunition was deployed in Al-Muthanna" is also unfounded. If this assertion is based on information it received from US officials, as the Dutch government claims, it has been deceived. On the 12th of March, about a week before his troops set foot on Iraqi soil, Major General “Buff” Buford Blount III, commander of the US army 3rd Infantry Division already conveyed in an interview with Le Monde that “if we receive the order to attack, final preparations will only take a few days. We have already began to unwrap our depleted uranium anti-tank shells.” That order came shortly, and as the Division advanced to Baghdad along the Euphrates, its Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) did not leave their unwrapped DU-shells sit idle on the way. On March 26, at CENTCOM Headquarters, General Brooks admitted as much, although he stressed that only “a very small portion of our munitions [contain] depleted uranium”.

Be that as it may, it is a fact that DU-ammunition has been widely used during operation “Iraqi Freedom”, also in Southern Iraq. Al Muthanna is no exception: the usage of DU-ammunition in and around the capital of the province, As Samawah, has been confirmed by US troops and ‘embedded’ journalists. In a widely distributed field message, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Cooper reports that the weapon systems used by the 3rd Infantry 7th Cavalry en route to As Samawah and on to Najaf, “are performing well, especially the 25mm DU and 7.62” . In a letter sent home, E. Pennell, crew member on a BFV of the 1st Infantry Battallion, 41st Infantry regiment, describes how his crew fires a 25 mm DU-round as they encounter seven enemy troops in the town of As Samawah: “We fire five rounds. The first one is a depleted uranium due to standard operating procedures”. Such reports suggest that DU ammunition was routinely employed in encounters with armoured enemy vehicles, also in urban environments.

Whereas the deployment DU ammunition on the ground may have been subject to some operational restrictions, airborne DU ordnance has been fired less discriminately. The aircraft of choice for close air support to ground battles has been the A-10 “Wharthog” jet, notorious for its anti-tank missiles and its lethal 30 mm cannons that can fire up to 4200 rounds per minute. Accordingly, the aircraft is designed to carry lots of ammunition, both DU as well as ‘conventional’, high explosive (HE) rounds, typically fed into its guns in a mix of 5/6 or 5/8 (DU/HE) . Data released by the US Air Force recently, establish that the Warthogs have shot 311,597 rounds of 30 mm ordnance during the war , which would suggest that they have delivered at least 194,748 DU rounds. As each cartridge contains just over 300 grams of depleted uranium, this amounts to a minimum release of 58,814 kilograms of DU.

In Southern Iraq the Warthogs have played an important, supporting role in efforts to control strategic locations such as Tallil airbase and the bridges over the Euphrates. In the battle of Samawah, too, Warthogs have been called in to help ground troops mob up resistance and capture the two bridges there. In one of the incidences, vehicles of the 3rd Infantry 7th Cavalry reportedly drew friendly fire from Warthog aircraft, during a strike on a junk yard in town. Since the US government has so far not disclosed any exact numbers, it is yet unknown just how much DU has been used in the war. The British government has been a bit more forthcoming, admitting that British Challenger tanks expended 1.9 tons of DU (approximately twice as much as in the 1990-91 Gulf Conflict) . On the basis of the available information Dan Fahey, an independent DU expert, estimates that 100-200 tons of DU may have been released during combat . If true, this would be significantly less than the total of approximately 290 tons shot in 1991. However, as Mr Fahey and others note, this time a larger share of the expenditure appears to have occurred in or around urban areas and, thus, increasing the potential for civilian exposure to DU.

Indeed, all over Iraq, the remains of spent DU shells and DU-contaminated debris have been found littering the streets in urban areas. Some wrecked vehicles have been towed away, and the most obvious contaminated sites are marked. However, most locations have not even been identified let alone cleaned, even though there is a widely shared consensus that DU contamination can be a potential health hazard.

After all, DU is a radioactive and toxic heavy metal which, like any other metal, is disposed to corrode and may, therefore, end up in the water supply or food chain . Apart from that, DU ammunition and armour ignites on impact, resulting in a very fine, radioactive and toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested. Once in the body, DU may cause harm due to the exposure of internal organs to its chemical toxicity, radiation or the combined effects of both.

As of yet, though, little is known about the long-term health effects of exposure to DU contamination. To minimize the risk of exposure, US and UK troops have been instructed to stay away from potentially contaminated areas as much as possible or to wear, at least, respiratory protection and gloves when it is inevitable to enter such sites .

We may assume that Iraqi civilians stand to bear the same health risks as US or UK troops. However, there is no indication that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has properly informed the population about DU contamination. The British Ministry of Defence merely affirms that Iraqi locals have been warned “that they should not go near or touch any debris they find on the battlefield” . Perhaps this would have sufficed, were it not for the fact that quite a few battles have been fought in densely populated areas, where it is virtually impossible for residents to avoid all remnants of war. It is thus indispensable that DU contaminated debris is clearly marked, fenced off or, preferably, cleaned up, and that citizens receive proper safety instructions.

Now, at least the British government has agreed to provide details of UK DU firing locations to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and directly to recognised non-government organisations working on location . It has also assumed some responsibility for clean-up and decontamination . In contrast, the US government has so far denied any responsibility for DU clean-up in Iraq. To date, it has also refused to disclose any information about the quantities and locations of DU expenditure or allow a UNEP Post Conflict Assessment Unit to study the environmental impact of DU contamination.

In fact, if we are to believe the Dutch government, the only specific information that the US authorities have disclosed so far is that no DU-ammunition has been used in the province of Al Muthanna. As we have demonstrated, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Consequently, either the Dutch government has deceived parliament or it has been misinformed by US authorities. Either way, the question remains as to how much DU has been fired and where exactly—both in Al Muthanna as well as Iraq at large. As long as such basic issues are not addressed, it is not possible to assess the health risks of DU contamination, let alone claim that these are negligible.

Of course, the lack of reliable information bears, before all, on concerns about the health and safety of the Iraqi population but it also implicates coalition troops and the newly arriving SFIR units. The main problem is that the troops only know of areas contaminated more than ten years ago, during the Gulf War in 1991. About areas that have been contaminated recently, they have received no information.

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