(April 11, 2003) Twelve years after the use of depleted uranium (DU) antitank shells in the first Gulf War, the US and UK forces in Iraq are using this type of ammunition again. Instead of the fights in the first Gulf War in 1991 there are less tank to tank battles (as in 1991 on the Kuwait borders), but more combats along the supply routes towards and into Baghdad. These main routes are going through urban areas which increases the risk of people being exposed to toxic uranium particles.
(585.5503) Laka Foundation - Reports from journalists mention the use of DU munitions in the ongoing attacks on Baghdad (and last week at the airport west of Baghdad). Besides the large caliber rounds from the M1 Abrams tanks (M1, M1A1 and M1A2), the US Army also uses the small caliber rounds by the 25mm cannon of the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles. These weaponry were also fired during combats near Karbala and Al Kifl. In Najaf, the attacks were supported by air strikes from US A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack planes, which also fired its small caliber rounds near the Tallil air base, outside Nasiriyah in southeastern Iraq. The A-10, the tank-busting plane popularly known as "Warthog", was responsible for most of the 315 metric tonnes of DU which was fired during the Gulf War of 1991.
The report (35pp) is available at the website of WISE Uranium: http://www.wise-uranium.org/pdf/dumyths.pdf
On 7 April, 70 M1 Abrams tanks and 60 M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles entered the city of Baghdad under the cover of A-10's. At the same time UK Challenger-2 tanks were taking positions in the center of Basra. In the past weeks these tanks used their large caliber DU rounds in their attacks on Iraq's second city.
Contrary to the first Gulf War of 1991, DU ammunitions have now been used near or inside urban areas. After the present war there will be many sites with depleted uranium contamination within populated areas or nearby. These can be either hitten Iraqi tanks contaminated with uranium dust or uranium shells that missed their target and penetrated into the ground (in practice only less than 20% of the shells will hit a tank). In order to reduce the consequences of uranium contamination as far as possible, the radioactively contaminated tanks and remaining shells have to be removed and cleaned as soon as the war is over.
Meanwhile the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has recommended a scientific assessment of DU contaminated sites to be conducted in Iraq as soon as conditions permit. UNEP-led field studies of sites struck by DU ordnance in the Balkans during the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s were the first international field assessments of how DU behaves in the environment. UNEP's Post-Conflict Assessment Unit has published assessments of DU impacts in Kosovo (2001), Serbia and Montenegro (2002) and recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2003). The studies can be found at the website postconflict.unep.ch/publications.htm#du.
UNEP Executive Director Klaus Töpfer says: "The fact remains that depleted uranium is still an issue of great concern for the general public. An early study in Iraq could either lay these fears to rest or confirm that there are indeed potential risks, which could then be addressed through immediate action".
The Balkans assessments were made two to sevens years after the use of DU weapons. According to UNEP an early study in Iraq would add enormously to the understanding of how DU behaves in the environment. It could also show if there are any risks remaining from the period of the 1991 Gulf War.
Based on the findings of the DU research of UNEP in the Balkans Töpfer stated that there are a number of remaining scientific uncertainties that should be further explored. These include the extent to which DU on the ground can filter through the soil and eventually contaminate groundwater, and the possibility that DU dust could later be re-suspended in the air by wind or human activity, with the risk that it could be breathed in.
By end-April, UNEP will publish a "desk study" on the Iraq environment that will provide the necessary background information for conducting field research. This research will examine risks to groundwater, surface water, drinking water sources, waste-management and other environment-related infrastructure, factories and other potential sources of toxic chemicals, and biodiversity.
The outcome of the current debate within the Bush administration and the debate between the US and the European Union (particularly the United Kingdom) about the future government of postwar Iraq and the participation of the UN will be a determinant factor in the way the new authorities in Iraq will handle the DU contaminated sites. The most achievable option will probably be a field research by UNEP, supported by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The best option should be a fully independent health examination on large scale among Gulf War soldiers and Iraqi citizens who could have been exposed to depleted uranium dust particles. However, based on experiences of the last decade, this might be wishful thinking.