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Issue #1607      August 21, 2013

Depleted uranium contamination still blights Iraq

A decade may have elapsed since the US invasion of Iraq but the depleted uranium it left behind continues to take its toll.

Depleted uranium ammunition aboard USS Missouri.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the 2003 invasion, a new report has highlighted continuing uncertainties over the impact and legacy of the use of 400 tonnes of depleted uranium (DU) weapons in Iraq. The report reveals the extent of DU’s use in civilian areas for the first time.

“In a State of Uncertainty” published by Dutch peace organisation IKV Pax Christi, has sought to do what the US has so far refused to do - reveal how widely the weapons were used in Iraq, and in what circumstances. It also analyses the costs and technical burdens associated with DU use, arguing that a decade on, many contamination problems remain unresolved - leaving civilians at risk of chronic DU exposure.

States argue that the use of controversial DU munitions is justified against armoured vehicles, yet “In a State of Uncertainty” documents their use against a wider range of targets in 2003, with attacks often taking place within civilian areas, leaving residents at risk from contamination. This resulted from both the US’ use of DU in medium calibre ammunition for aircraft and armoured fighting vehicles, and the frequency of urban combat operations in 2003.

The report also finds that the Iraqi government has struggled with the cost and technical challenges posed by the legacy of contamination, a situation compounded by the US’ refusal to release targeting data. The Iraqi government acknowledges that there are more than 300 sites with known contamination, based on the limited data available, with new sites regularly discovered. Clean-up of sites typically costs around US$150,000, but varies considerably depending on the setting, extent and level of contamination.

“The 300 or so known sites may be the tip of the iceberg,” said a spokesperson for the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW). “While it is obviously difficult to extrapolate directly from other conflicts, in the Balkans, where 1/60th of the quantity of DU was used, we saw somewhat over 100 contaminated sites; we would therefore expect the total number of contaminated sites in Iraq to be far higher than the 300 identified by the Iraqi authorities.”

Health concerns

Reports collected by the International Committee of the Red Cross reveal that tribal leaders in southern Iraq highlighted DU contamination as a primary health concern, with fear of DU exposure widespread in Iraq. Iraqis commonly associate increased incidence rates of cancers, congenital birth malformations and other diseases with DU, resulting in significant levels of anxiety. Prompted by numerous media reports of a health crisis in Fallujah, linked by researchers to the toxic legacy of military activities, a major review of birth defect rates in six Iraqi provinces by the World Health Organisation and Iraqi Ministry of Health is to be published soon.

“In a State of Uncertainty” documents the enormous problem still posed by the poorly regulated storage and trade in military scrap metal. Deregulation of the scrap trade under the Coalition Provisional Authority resulted in casual scrap metal collectors being needlessly exposed to DU and in the export of contaminated scrap to neighbouring countries. Scrap metal collectors continue to remain at risk of exposure, as do those who live near dozens of uncontrolled scrap sites. The Iraqi government has requested international assistance in analysing and managing contaminated military scrap.

“Because states are under no obligation to share targeting data, even when deploying toxic and radioactive munitions, it is unclear exactly how many locations may still be contaminated, or the extent of the risks that civilians face,” said the report’s author Wim Zwijnenburg.

“DU’s apparent use in built-up areas against a range of targets in 2003 increased these risks, running counter to efforts to increase protection for civilians during armed conflict and further undermining DU’s legitimacy. This uncertainty means that fear of DU among Iraqi civilians is widespread yet effectively managing DU’s legacy will require international assistance.”

The United Nations General Assembly has twice called for greater transparency over DU weapons use, most recently in December 2012, where 155 states voted in favour. The US, the UK, France and Israel were the only four states which opposed the text, which also accepted the potential risks from DU use and called for a precautionary approach to their post-conflict management.

Throughout, it is clear that for states recovering from conflict, effectively managing DU contamination to standards even approaching those in the states that employ the weapons poses significant challenges. IKV Pax Christi argues that the implications for the wider acceptability of DU munitions are clear.

“Even now, 10 years after the 2003 conflict, the true extent of the risks posed to civilians from DU in Iraq is unclear,” said an ICBUW spokesperson. “As the US seems reluctant to share targeting data and any records of any clean-up work it may have undertaken during the 2003-05 period, it is unclear how this situation might be resolved. Greater transparency on usage would of course be extremely helpful in determining the extent of DU’s use in civilian areas.” International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (www.bandepleteduranium.org)

The report “In a State of Uncertainty” can be downloaded from: www.ikvpaxchristi.nl

Third World Resurgence  

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