Many Iraqis are still dying from the Gulf War

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By Paul Eedle

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Dr Ali Jawad, consultant oncologist at the main hospital in Iraq’s southern city of Basra says cancer rates are many time what is normal: ‘The father of all factors is the war’

When a doctor at a children's hospital in Baghdad first told me a theory that depleted uranium used in American and British shells during the Gulf war was causing a big increase in cancer in Iraq, I thought he'd wandered into cloud-cuckoo propaganda land. I didn't take very careful notes.

But then someone working in the
UN humanitarian programme in Baghdad told me he took the possibility very seriously - he'd met an oil engineer whose belly had blistered after touching blown-up tanks in the desert near the Kuwaiti border. He said depleted uranium was used to harden the cases of armour-piercing shells and when they exploded inside a tank, they blasted radioactive material  in every direction.

Iraqis living in the area were
absorbing the uranium in their food, and troops in the US-led coalition who had came along straight after the big battles of 1991 to have victory photos taken on the wreckage of Iraqi tanks had probably picked up significant doses of radioactivity. Some U.S. veterans groups have also expressed concern about the effects of depleted uranium. The United States admits using depleted uranium tipped weaponry but says there are no proven side-effects.
 

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It's a story that grips people's imagination because radioactivity is both invisible and fatal. My Information Ministry escort, Mohammed, starting making nervous jokes about depleted uranium when we were only half way along the 550 kilometres from Baghdad to the southern port of Basra. He told an anecdote about a Japanese journalist who had brought his own cans of food from Japan because he didn't want to eat local food in southern Iraq.

My driver, Omar, and I laughed politely because Mohammad was laughing.
But it isn't very funny.  By the time I was clambering through the wreckage of Iraqi oil installations rocketed by the US-led coalition on Tuesday afternoon, I was worrying how much contaminated dust I might be breathing in or picking up on my clothes. (Actually, the risk is negligable for visitors - what matters is the metal accumulating in your body over a period of time from repeated exposure).

Nobody has yet assembled conclusive evidence proving that depleted uranium from Gulf War weapons has caused an increase in cancer in southern Iraq. But there's a definite case to answer.

Dr Jawad al-Ali, the small, tired consultant oncologist at Basra's main teaching hospital, told me that in his clinic the number of cases of acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer normally caused by exposure to radiation, had increased from one in 1991 to 30 in 1997. Like the other doctors I've met in Iraq, he impressed me because he stuck to what he thought were facts and didn't lay on any political message.

"There are many people living on the borders of Basra, between Basra and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This is the area where the big battle happened and the depleted uranium is used there.
This will pollute the earth, it will pollute the water. The people who are living in the desert there, they have farms there, they have cattle and they are using water from wells. Probably this water is polluted, and if they use it for irrigation of their farms, the plants might be also polluted. Vegetables might be polluted," Dr Ali said.

He said he was treating 15 to 20 patients with cancer from the border area. The total number of people living in the area was about 5,000 to 10,000, making the overall incidence of cancer about
150 to 200 per 100,000 of population. He said in normal circumstances, a cancer such as lung cancer would have an incidence of no more than 2.5 to 4 per 100,000.

Dr Ali said depleted uranium was only one factor causing a big increase in
a whole range of types of cancer. Bad nutrition and stress both affect the human immune system and make people more prone to cancer - and both are very widespread in Iraq after eight years of UN sanctions which make every day a struggle for many families to find enough to eat. The TNT used in conventional explosives also causes cancer.

"The war is the major factor causing all these factors.
The father of all factors is the war," he said.

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