Robert Fisk - The evidence is there. We caused cancer in the Gulf|
October 16, 1998
The Independent, UK
Back to The Environmental Impact of War
PHIL GAMER telephoned me this week to ask how he could make contact with the doctors treating Iraq's child cancer victims. He had been reading our series on the growing evidence of links between cancers in Iraq and the use of depleted uranium shells by American and British forces during the 1991 Gulf War.
During the conflict, Gamer was in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was not in the front lines, but he handled the uniforms of Britain's "friendly fire" casualties - men who were attacked by US aircraft using depleted uranium rounds. And now he suffers from asthma, incontinence, pain in the intestines and has a lump on the right side of his neck.
I know what those lumps on the neck look like. This month I've seen enough Iraqi children with tumours on their abdomen to feel horror as well as anger. When Hebba Mortaba's mother lifted her little girl's patterned blue dress in the Mansour hospital in Baghdad, her terribly swollen abdomen displayed numerous abscesses. Doctors had already surgically removed an earlier abdominal mass only to find, monster-like, that another grew in its place.
During the 1991 war, Hebba's suburb of Basra was bombed so heavily that her family fled to Baghdad. She is now just nine years old and, so her doctors told me gently, will not live to see her 10th birthday.
When I first reported from Iraq's child cancer wards last February and March - and visited the fields and farms around Basra into which US and British tanks fired thousands of depleted uranium shells in the last days of the war - the British Government went to great lengths to discredit what I wrote. I still treasure a letter from Lord Gilbert, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who told Independent readers that my account of a possible link between DU ammunition and increased Iraqi child cancer cases would, "coming from anyone other than Robert Fisk", be regarded as "a wilful perversion of reality." According to his Lordship, particles from the DU hardened warheads - used against tank armour - are extremely small, rapidly diluted and dispersed by the weather and "become difficult to detect, even with the most sophisticated monitoring equipment." Over the past few months I've been sent enough evidence to suggest that, had this letter come from anyone other than his Lordship, its implications would be mendacious as well as misleading.
Let us start with an equally eloquent but far more accurate letter sent to the Royal Ordnance in London on 21 April 1991 by Paddy Bartholomew, business development manager of AEA Technology, the trading name for the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Mr Bartholomew's letter - of which I have obtained a copy - refers to a telephone conversation with a Royal Ordnance official on the dangers of the possible contamination of Kuwait by depleted uranium ammunition. An accompanying "threat paper" by Mr Bartholomew, in which he notes that while the hazards caused by the spread of radioactivity and toxic contamination from these weapons "are small when compared to those during a war", they nonetheless "can become a long-term problem if not dealt with in peacetime and are a risk to both military and civilian population".
The document, marked "UK Restricted" goes on to say that "US tanks fired 5,000 DU rounds, US aircraft many tens of thousands and UK tanks a small number of DU rounds. The tank ammunition alone will amount to greater than 50,000lb of DU...if the tank inventory of DU was inhaled, the latest International Committee of Radiological Protection risk factor...calculates 500,000 potential deaths."
"The DU will spread around the battlefield and target vehicles in various sizes and quantities ... it would be unwise for people to stay close to large quantities of DU for long periods and this would obviously be of concern to the local population if they collect this heavy metal and keep it."
Mr Bartholomew's covering letter says that the contamination of Kuwait is "emotive and thus must be dealt with in a sensitive manner".
Needless to say, no one has bothered even to suggest a clean-up in southern Iraq where Hebba Mortaba and other child victims are dying. Why not? And why doesn't the Government come clean and tell us what really happened?
Here is a clue. It comes in a letter dated 1 March 1991 from a US lieutenant colonel at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to a Major Larson at the organisation's Studies and Analysis Branch and states that: "There has been and continues to be a concern (sic) regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal. If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed)."
So there it is. Shorn of the colonel's execrable English, the message is simple: the health risks of DU ammunition are acceptable until we - the West - invent something even more lethal to take its place.
So with tens of thousands of 1991 Gulf War veterans suffering unexplained and potentially terminal illnesses and with thousands of Iraqi civilians, including children unborn when the war ended, now suffering from unexplained cancers, I can only repeat what I wrote last February: that something terrible happened at the end of the Gulf War about which we have still not been told the truth. As former acting Sergeant Tony Duff of the Gulf War Veterans put it to me yesterday, "a lot of things we are now calling victories about the Gulf War will be seen one day as atrocities - I wonder whether this is why the powers that be don't want this DU thing to come out?"
And what exactly is this awful secret which we are not allowed to know? Is it, as Professor Malcolm Hooper, professor of medicinal chemistry at Sunderland University remarks, the result of the US-British bombing of Saddam Hussein's Sarin and Tabun poison gas factories (around 900 facilities were bombed, it now turns out). Or is it the secret DU factor?
I don't know whether this can be classed as a war crime. But anyone who thinks there's no connection between our use of depleted uranium ammunition in the 1991 Gulf War and the tide of sickness that has followed in its wake must also believe in Father Christmas.
Does Lord Gilbert believe in Father Christmas, I wonder?