Victims of U.S. chemical warfare in Iraq

October 15, 2013

Elizabeth Schulte reports on a World Health Organization study that is trying to claim that there are few links between depleted uranium weaponry and illnesses in Iraq.

A RECENTLY released report on birth defects as a result of the use of depleted uranium (DU) during the U.S. war on Iraq released by the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) attempts to rewrite history on the terrible impact of the war on Iraqi citizens.

Several independent experts who have themselves investigated the incidents of illnesses such as birth defects and cancer in Iraq since 2003, as well as established medical journals like the Lancet, are questioning the findings of the report issued by the WHO, in coordination with the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

Dr. Keith Baverstock, who worked as a WHO expert on radiation and health for 13 years, told the Guardian that he doubted the scientific credibility of the document, saying, "It wouldn't pass peer review in one of the worst journals."

The study seemed doomed from the start because it didn't even look at actual medical records from Iraqi hospitals and doctors, but based its findings instead on interviews with mothers about their traumatizing recollections of events.

An infant receives treatment in a hospital in Falluja, Iraq
An infant receives treatment in a hospital in Falluja, Iraq (Laura Epatko)

The WHO based its report on a 2012 survey of 10,800 Iraqi mothers and relies in large part on the mothers' memories of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths and births with congenital defects since the 1980s. Iraqi government interviewers claimed that there were few medical records for the earlier years, so they were only able to examine medical files for 32 percent of the reported cases.

"The way this document has been produced is extremely suspicious," concluded Baverstock. "There are question marks about the role of the U.S. and UK, who have a conflict of interest in this sort of study due to compensation issues that might arise from findings determining a link between higher birth defects and DU."

THE U.S. military began using DU during the 1991 Gulf War. Since that time, its severe and deadly effects, such as high cancer rates, birth defects and other environmental health problems, have been documented. Journalist Dahr Jamail wrote in March:

Official Iraqi government statistics show that, prior to the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991, the rate of cancer cases in Iraq was 40 out of 100,000 people. By 1995, it had increased to 800 out of 100,000 people, and by 2005, it had doubled to at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people. Current estimates show the increasing trend continuing.

As shocking as these statistics are, due to a lack of adequate documentation, research and reporting of cases, the actual rate of cancer and other diseases is likely to be much higher than even these figures suggest.

In a column earlier this year, independent journalist John Pilger recalled a 1999 visit to Iraq in which he talked to pediatrician Dr. Ginan Ghalib Hassen. Hassen described the many children she was treating with neuroblastoma.

"Before the war, we saw only one case of this unusual tumor in two years," Hassen told Pilger. "Now we have many cases, mostly with no family history. I have studied what happened in Hiroshima. The sudden increase of such congenital malformations is the same."

To make matters even worse, the U.S. sanctions on Iraq at the time prevented Iraqi doctors from acquiring the equipment they needed, such as chemotherapy drugs and analgesics, to try and treat the illnesses caused by DU.

For its invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military didn't hesitate to use depleted uranium once again. According to Jamail, who went to Iraq to report as an independent, "unembedded" journalist:

The U.S. and British militaries used more than 1,700 tons of depleted uranium in Iraq in the 2003 invasion (Jane's Defence News, 4/2/04)--on top of 320 tons used in the 1991 Gulf War (Inter Press Service, 3/25/03). Literally every local person I've ever spoken with in Iraq during my nine months of reporting there knows someone who either suffers from or has died of cancer.

During its two pounding assaults on the city of Falluja in 2004, the U.S. used large quantities of DU ammunition, as well as white phosphorous--which burns when exposed to air and can cause horrific injuries to anyone caught in its path.

It's important to remember that this was a war the U.S. government said it was fighting in order to put a halt to Saddam Hussein's access to "weapons of mass destruction."

Afterward, the U.S. military refused to clean up the areas that had been exposed to DU, and it refused to take responsibility for the illnesses it caused.

THE RECENT WHO study's findings are a departure from any study of the effects of depleted uranium to date, and the experiences of Iraq doctors themselves.

The British medical journal Lancet cited a 2011 study by Samira Alaani, a pediatrician in Falluja, who used hospital records to show congenital malformations accounted for 15 percent of all births in Falluja since 2003.

The publication also cites a 2012 study that found a 17-fold increase in birth defects in the Al Basrah Maternity Hospital since 1994. The Lancet also pointed out that, according to one of the authors of this 2012 study, the data from Basrah in the WHO's report released last month contradicts the previous study.

Human rights groups and health officials around the world have been waiting for the results of this report, in order to move ahead on demands that the U.S. take responsibility for poisoning Iraq citizens and help clean up contaminated sites and provide medical aid to those who are suffering illnesses as a result.

The study was initiated in May 2012 and was reportedly completed in October 2012, yet it took a whole year for the WHO to release the findings, leading several human rights groups to question the delay. When the reports claimed that there was no unusual rise in the number of birth defects in Iraq, health experts decided they needed to carefully examine the report.

There are plenty of good reasons--and past history--to back up the idea that the questionable findings of the WHO report are the product of U.S. government's wishes to cover up the truth.

Hans von Sponeck, a former UN assistant secretary general and UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq who resigned in protest of U.S.-backed sanctions, described how the U.S. put the brakes on a WHO investigation into the effects of DU. He told the Guardian, "I served in Baghdad and was confronted with the reality of the environmental impact of DU. In 2001, I saw in Geneva how a WHO mission to conduct on-spot assessments in Basra and southern Iraq, where depleted uranium had led to devastating environmental health problems, was aborted under U.S. political pressure."

This isn't the first time the WHO has tried to cover up DU's effects. Baverstock told the Guardian that he co-authored a paper that argued there might be a relationship between DU and birth defects in Iraq, but WHO officials blocked its publication.

"The extent to which scientific principles are being bent to fit politically convenient conclusions is alarming," said Baverstock.

This recent WHO report is just the latest attempt to cover up the U.S. crimes on people of Iraq. Human rights activists, as well as Iraqis and U.S. veterans exposed to DU, are calling on the U.S. government to pay for a thorough study of the effects of depleted uranium.

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