Sunday, December 23, 2012

Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?

Mystery in Iraq

Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?

By Alexander Smoltczyk

Spiegel (Germany)

December 18, 2012

The guns have been silent in Iraq for years, but in

Basra and Fallujah the number of birth defects and

cancer cases is on the rise. Locals believe that

American uranium-tipped munitions are to blame

and some researchers think they might be right.

It sounds at first as if the old man were drunk. Or

perhaps as though he had been reading Greek

myths. But Askar Bin Said doesn't read anything,

especially not books, and there is no alcohol in

Basra. In fact, he says, he saw the creatures he

describes with his own eyes: "Some had only one

eye in the forehead. Or two heads. One had a tail

like a skinned lamb. Another one looked like a

perfectly normal child, but with a monkey's face. Or

the girl whose legs had grown together, half fish,

half human."

The babies Askar Bin Said describes were brought

to him. He washed them and wrapped them in

shrouds, and then he buried them in the dry soil,

littered with bits of plastic and can lids, of his own

cemetery, which has been in his family for five

generations. It's a cemetery only for children.

Though they are small, the graves are crowded so

tightly together that they are almost on top of one

another. They look as if someone had overturned toy

wheelbarrows full of cement and then scratched the

names and dates of death into it before it hardened.

In many cases, there isn't even room for the birth

date. But it doesn't really matter, because in most

cases the two dates are the same.

There are several thousand graves in the cemetery,

and another five to 10 are added every day. The

large number of graves is certainly conspicuous,

says Bin Said. But, he adds, there "really isn't an

explanation" for why there are so many dead and

deformed newborn babies in Basra.

Others, though, do have an idea why. According to a

study published in September in the Bulletin of

Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, a

professional journal based in the southwestern

German city of Heidelberg, there was a sevenfold

increase in the number of birth defects in Basra

between 1994 and 2003. Of 1,000 live births, 23

had birth defects.

Double and Triple Cancers

Similarly high values are reported from Fallujah, a

city that was fiercely contested in the 2003 war.

According to the Heidelberg study, the concentration

of lead in the milk teeth of sick children from Basra

was almost three times as high as comparable

values in areas where there was no fighting.

Never before has such a high rate of neural tube

defects ("open back") been recorded in babies as in

Basra, and the rate continues to rise. The number of

hydrocephalus ("water on the brain") cases among

newborns is six times as high in Basra as it is in the

United States, the study concludes.

Jawad al-Ali has worked as a cancer specialist at

the Sadr Teaching Hospital (formerly the Saddam

Hospital), housed in a sinister-looking building in

Basra, since 1991. He remembers the period after

the first Gulf war over Kuwait. "It isn't just that the

number of cancer cases suddenly increased. We also

had double and triple cancers, that is, patients with

tumors on both kidneys and in the stomach. And

there were also familial clusters, that is, entire

families that were affected." He is convinced that

this relates to the use of uranium ammunition.

"There is a connection between cancer and

radiation. Sometimes it takes 10 or 20 years before

the consequences manifest themselves."

The term uranium ammunition refers to projectiles

whose alloys or cores are made with "depleted," or

weakly radioactive uranium, also known as DU.

When German soldiers are deployed overseas, they

are given the following information: "Uranium

munitions are armor-piercing projectiles with a core

of depleted uranium. Because of its high density,

this core provides the projectile with very high

momentum and enables it to pierce the armor of

combat tanks."

When DU explodes, it produces a very fine uranium

dust. When children play near wrecked tanks, they

can absorb this dust through their skin, their

mouths and their airways. A 2002 study at the

University of Bremen in northern Germany found

that chromosomal changes had occurred in Gulf war

veterans who had come into contact with uranium


The German Defense Ministry counters that it isn't

the radiation that constitutes a health threat, but

the "chemical toxicity of uranium."

Living in a Garbage Dump

London's Royal Society presented one of the most

comprehensive studies on the issue in 2002, but it

only addressed the potential threat to soldiers. It

concluded that the risk of radiation damage is "very

low," as is the risk of chronic kidney toxicity from

uranium dust.

This may reassure soldiers, but not Mohammed

Haidar. He lives in Kibla, a district in Basra which,

like others in the city, resembles nothing so much

as a garbage dump. Kibla is a neighborhood of

squalid, make-shift shops and shacks -- with

shimmering, greenish liquid flowing through open

sewers and plastic containers filled with rotting


Haidar, who teaches mathematics at a high school,

could afford to live in a better neighborhood. But he

spends every spare dinar on treatment for his

daughter Rukya. The three-year-old is sitting on his

lap, resembling a ventriloquist's doll. She is an

adorable little girl with pigtails and ribbons in her

hair. But she can't walk or speak properly.

When Haidar turns his daughter around, two

openings in her back become visible. She has a cleft

spine, the externally visible sign of hydrocephalus,

as well as an implanted drainage tube to remove

excess cerebrospinal fluid. In Germany, children

with cases like hers are often treated with prenatal

surgery, but not in Basra. In fact, Haidar and his

wife are glad that Rukya is even alive. She is their

first and only child. "We both grew up in Basra. I

hold the United States responsible. They used DU.

My child isn't an isolated case," Haidar says.

The term "DU" seems to be just as widespread in

Basra as birth defects are.

DU ammunition was used twice in the Basra

district: outside the city in the 1991 war, and in the

city proper in 2003, when British troops were

advancing toward the airport. West Basra is the

urban district with the highest incidence of

leukemia among infants.

"Those who were children in the first war are adults

today," says Khairiya Abu Yassin of the city's

environmental agency. She estimates that 200 tons

of DU ammunition were used in Basra. The Defense

Ministry in London claims that British troops used

only about two tons of DU ammunition during the

war. Either way, the remains of tanks destroyed in

the war with the help of DU ammunition littered the

streets until 2008.

Propaganda Fodder

It was impossible to keep children and salvagers

away from the wrecks, says Abu Yassin. "We

installed signs that read: Caution -- Radiation. But

people don't take a threat seriously when it doesn't

act like the bullet from a gun."

DU is a sensitive issue, and not every doctor in

Basra is willing to go on record commenting on it.

The reasons for the reticence have to do with the

dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein: The alleged

radiation threat coming from remnants of armor-

piercing ammunition provided popular propaganda


In the United States, no major newspaper has yet

published a story on the genetic disorders in

Fallujah. Britain's Guardian, on the other hand,

criticized the silence of "the West," calling it a moral

failure, and cited chemist Chris Busby, who said

that the Fallujah health crisis represented "the

highest rate of genetic damage in any population

ever studied." Busby is the co-author of two studies

on the subject.

Still, it is difficult to precisely pinpoint the cause of

the defects. Spinal chord abnormality can also be

triggered by a folic acid deficiency at the beginning

of pregnancy, for example. Furthermore, very few

Iraqis can afford regular pregnancy exams. As a

result, many defective embryos are carried to full

term, in contrast to what normally happens in

Europe or the US.

Wolfgang Hoffmann, an epidemiologist at the

University of Greifswald in northeastern Germany,

has been collaborating with fellow scientists in

Basra for years. "Birth defects often look very

disturbing in photos," he says. "But they are always

isolated cases and are not necessarily useful for

identifying trends."

Hoffmann cites the lack of comprehensive data and

questions the epidemiological reliability of reports.

He does believe, however, that indications of

increasing rates of cancer in Basra should be taken

very seriously, partly because the data for Basra is

more reliable.

Searching for the Truth The "plausible risk factors"

for childhood leukemia, says Hoffmann,

"undoubtedly include the contaminated

environment, but also the lack of prevention, the

trauma suffered by parents and the devastated

medical infrastructure." The statistical increase in

the number of children with leukemia since 1993 is

also a function of cases not having been fully

documented before 2003.

Janan Hassan, an oncologist with the Basra

Children's Hospital, participated in a study that was

just published in the Medical Journal of the Sultan

Qaboos University in Oman. It states that although

the rate of childhood leukemia in Basra remained

stable between 2004 and 2009, compared with other

countries in the region, there is a trend toward very

young children contracting the disease.

As such, she believes that objections are only

partially applicable. There is a "strong increase" of

genetic defects as a cause of leukemia, she notes.

"And the cases are coming from precisely the areas

where there was heavy fighting. How do you explain

that? By saying that reporting requirements have


Sabria Salman named her son Muslim, but it didn't

protect him. Muslim, now 10, recently underwent

surgery to remove a 500-gram tumor on his upper

arm. He doesn't scream in pain anymore. Instead,

the boy has a permanent grin on his face, as if he no

longer had the strength to change his expression.

He perspires heavily and has trouble breathing.

There is a drain tube protruding from his left arm,

and the right arm is wrapped in a dressing that's

stained red along the edges.

Salman calls it "cancer in the muscles." The boy

broke his shoulder two years ago, and since then

his body has made little progress towards healing.

'Bombs in Our Neighborhood'

The hospital pays for the chemotherapy, although

radiation therapy would be more effective for his

tumor. But radiation is only available abroad or in

Baghdad, where there is a five-month waiting list --

and the family doesn't have that much time

anymore. The mother prays to Allah, and when the

interpreter asks her who is to blame for her son's

affliction, she says: "The war is to blame. The

pollution. There were many bombs in our


Uranium may be a factor, but other substances used

in the production of ammunition and bombs are

also implicated, toxic heavy metals like lead and

mercury. "The bombardment of Basra and Fallujah

may have increased the population's exposure to

metals, possibly resulting in the current increase in

birth defects," states the Heidelberg study.

Furthermore, when the Rumaila oil field near Basra

was set on fire in 2003, a cloud of soot full of

carcinogenic particles drifted across the city. And

another factor could also be at play. Since Saddam

was overthrown, Iraq's neighbors, Iran, Syria and

Turkey, have diverted substantially more water from

the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The current in the

Shatt-al-Arab, formed by the confluence of the two

rivers, is now so weak that salt water penetrates

inland from the Persian Gulf all the way to Basra.

This means that wastewater from industrial facilities

downstream from Basra, like the Iranian oil refinery

in Abadan, are no longer being adequately diluted,

increasing the concentration of heavy metals in


Abu Ammar lives with his family on the grounds of

Saddam's former navy command center. The

quarters are cramped, with 10 people in a room, and

the situation of several other families on the

grounds is no better. It is yet another impoverished

Basra neighborhood -- the riches of the Basra oil

wells, omnipresent in the neighborhood in the

shape of stinking fumes, have yet to trickle down to

the people.

Three Eyes for Three Children

Ammar has spread out a plastic rug on the floor and

placed a can of 7-Up and a pastry for each of his

visitors on the rug. The family -- or what is left of it

-- squats around the rug. Saddam's thugs executed

two of Ammar's brothers. The cousin sitting next to

him still has a piece of shrapnel from an attack

wedged behind his eye, the mother died of grief, his

wife no longer goes outside -- "and these are our

children.," he says.

He points to a 21-year-old woman, a seven-year-old

girl and a little boy, sitting next to each other. They

don't have the same parents, but all three have the

same narrow faces, and together they have only

three eyes.

The sockets of their missing eyes look like the inside

of an oyster, milky and shapeless. The young

woman, Madia, attends the local college. She doesn't

like going there, she says, even though she covers

half of her face with her veil. "What caused this? I

think my mother inhaled something chemical when

I was inside of her," says Madia.

It's easy to assign the blame for these eerie birth

defects to something called "DU ammunition," made

in the USA. It's easier than thinking about the

deleterious effects of lead and mercury in the soil

and the tomatoes, or of the soot in the air and the

toxic materials in the water. But that doesn't relieve

those involved in the war from responsibility. It isn't

enough to declare a war to be over. Even though

Iraq now has elections and the tyrant has been

hanged, the war is still in the soil, in the air and in

the children.

Omran Habib heads the Basra Cancer Research

Group. He earned his Ph.D. in London and now

works as an epidemiologist at the University of

Basra Hospital. "The war did an enormous amount

of damage here," he says. "DU is certainly not good

for our health. Nevertheless, even the presence of

uranium in the urine of patients doesn't imply


A Bundle in White

The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently

assembling a report on DU ammunition. It will

reflect the current state of research on the issue, but

it will hardly provide any new insights. With the

help of the University of Greifswald, a cancer

registry has been developed for the Basra region and

will serve as the basis for all future study. Still, even

as further research is needed, if only for the

children's sake, it will come too late for many.

It's certainly too late for the body lying inside a little

white bundle of material, tied together at both ends

like a piece of candy, lying on a pile of dirt along the

edge of the children's cemetery in Basra. It was

supposed to be his first son, says the father,

standing next to the body. Yesterday the child was

still moving inside the mother's stomach. Today the

father was simply handed a bundle.

The body-washer on duty sighs loudly while digging

the grave, hoping to increase his baksheesh. Then

he places the bundle into the hole, says a few words

of prayer, makes some adjustments to the bundle

and covers it with earth. Off to the side, a chicken is

pecking at a piece of a "Capri Sun" container

sticking out of the soil.

Afterwards the men smoke. The father is given a

piece of cardboard and writes down the name of his

son, copying it from the combined birth and death

certificate they gave him at the hospital. The

gravedigger will scratch the name into the cement.

The boy was going to be named Hussein Ali. The

father writes the name of his dead child for the first

and last time.

The man remains motionless. Who wonders about

blame at such a moment? He seems empty,

completely at a loss and robbed of a tiny life.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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