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Blowback --- The unfolding tragedy of DU


The US purportedly went to war in Iraq to remove the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. What's not very well understood is that we used our own WMDs in the process, and the consequences for both Iraqis and Americans are disastrous. Even worse, this story is being ignored, brushed aside, or covered up by the government and most of the mainstream media.

Defined, a weapon of mass destruction destroys life on a massive scale. The list includes nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Then there's the "dirty bomb" --- a hybrid WMD that spreads radioactive materials after being set off by a conventional explosive. In 2002 an American citizen, Jose Padilla, was arrested in Chicago on suspicion of plotting to make a dirty bomb. Padilla has been held incommunicado without trial ever since.

The US government is right to consider this a serious threat. The problem is that this same government has been using dirty bombs on a massive scale in the two Iraq wars, exposing our own troops and the Iraqi and Afghan civilian populations to critical long-term health risks.

You say you've never heard of such a thing? Welcome to the esoteric world of depleted uranium (DU). This technology, developed for the US military, uses uranium left over from weapons or nuclear fuel production. The DU is then made part of artillery shells or smart bombs. Its weight and hardness allow it to penetrate any surface, and it explodes at incredibly high temperature. A uranium dust cloud then forms and falls back to earth, contaminating everything it touches. The radiation is persistent, since uranium's half-life lasts billions of years.

When this weapon was developed, the assumed target was the massive Warsaw Pact tank armies invading Western Europe. When the first Iraq war was fought in 1991, the US made the decision to use DU munitions against Iraqi tanks. Approximately 350 tons of DU was utilized in that conflict.

The health impact of DU on US Gulf War (1991) veterans and Iraqi civilians has been pronounced and extremely serious. As many as 10,000 US veterans of the Gulf War have died from what is called Gulf War Syndrome. In addition, 225,000 Gulf War vets are disabled and can't work due to a variety of ailments. In Basra, Iraq, an area of intense combat in the 1991 war, there has been a 10-fold increase in the cancer rate and a similar increase in birth deformities. Independent research organizations believe these statistics are resulting from the long-term effects of extensive uranium exposure.

In the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the United States again used DU munitions, but on a much greater scale than in 1991. Munitions totaled approximately 2,700 tons, almost eight times the amount used in 1991. The long-term impacts of DU utilization in the new Iraq war could be even worse, since so much was used in urban areas as opposed to the desert tank battles of 1991.

Some disturbing statistics have been collected by the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC), which has found severe uranium contamination in the air, ground, and water of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the bodies of Iraqis, Afghans, and American veterans.

Ambient air in downtown Baghdad has 11 times the environmental radioactivity as the average in North America; ground water sampled in Afghanistan has between six and 28 times the amount of uranium contamination deemed the maximum permissible by the World Health Organization; areas of combat have as much as 2,800 times the normal ground-contamination radiation levels.

In Samawah, Iraq, an area of extensive combat, the environment was so contaminated that Dutch soldiers assigned there after the war pulled out. They were followed by Japanese troops who also pulled out. This left the job to Americans, who have been there since. Urine samples taken by the UMRC from selected US soldiers show a high proportion with uranium in their bodies at levels considered hazardous to future health. These tests are expensive, and not typically conducted by the US Armed Forces. To this day, the Pentagon officially denies that DU is an environmental or health concern.

The 2004 film The Doctor, the Depleted Uranium, and the Dying Children shows scenes of Iraqi children playing on a burned-out tank while a Geiger counter is used to read radioactivity levels. The needle goes well into the red zone. On a roadside next to the Baghdad Gate, where combat was extensive, the Geiger counter goes to the maximum reading and a recorded message instructs the operator to leave the area immediately. A nearby refreshment stand serves a crowd of customers. Vehicle and foot traffic cruises by, including one slow-moving American Humvee.

Apparently no one in the American occupation hierarchy seems concerned about posting any warnings of the radiation dangers at the Baghdad Gate or anywhere else in Iraq.

Imagine if Jose Padilla had managed to set off a dirty bomb in Chicago or New York. Imagine what the reaction would be if the subsequent environmental indicators were equivalent to what they actually are in Iraq. The panic could hardly be contained.

How could we as a nation make the disastrous and unnecessary decision to use DU? Our service men and women --- and numerous Iraqi civilians --- will be paying the awful price of that decision for years to come.