Mystery in Iraq: Are US Munitions to Blame for Basra Birth Defects?

By Alexander Smoltczyk

Part 2: 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 changed?"

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 neighborhood."

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 groundwater.

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 causation."

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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1. Du
fromearth17 12/18/2012
It's on record that depeleted uranium has been used in Irak since the start of the war (almost). Bombed back to when? It's not clouds of smoke from oil refinaries or other "natural" causes. It's the retalation of the Empire on the PEOPLE.
2. DU Research
neis-usa 12/19/2012
I am saddened but encouraged to read this article on the new research being done on DU. In 2003 my organization -- Nuclear Energy Information Service of Chicago, USA -- helped co-host an international Conference on DU with GAAA of Germany and Nukewatch, USA, in Hamburg. I am pleased to say that the website for this Conference is still working: www.uraniumweaponsconference.de Both Drs. al-Ali and Hassan were presenters at this Conference. In 2004-05, our organizations along with tremendous help and leadership from IPPNW Japan and others helped fund a preliminary study conducted by Dr. al-Ali on the DU effects in Basra. I would hope his work was eventually completed and published. At the time the safety and security issues associated with the ongoing fighting and occupation severely hampered his efforts to collect the data needed. I am glad this terror has subsided enough for him to complete the much-needed work. --Dave Kraft, Director, NEIS, Chicago USA --
3.
esperonto 12/21/2012
This is old news to me. Why don't you complain about the Depleted Uranium used in Serbia? It caused birth defects and deaths. I see, Serbia is different. You wanted to open a Delhaize supermarket there! It's okay if you use depleted uranium, provide you can open a hypermarket in a former socialist nation. Aside from the fact that capitalism is a complete paradox, where most of the crap you can buy is bad for you. I state the paradox this way: The truly educated consumer would consume only very little, and avoid even drinking orange juice. Consequently, the educated consumer would consume the same amount as someone in a socialist nation, thus creating a paradox. After all capitalism is merely a state where continuous attempts to rip you off are being made. The mouthwash has alcohol in it that causes mouth cancer! The juice is just sugar water that is worse than soda. If it is all bad for you, then what is the point? So it's so great now that you liberated Yugoslavia from socialism, now they can have birth defects and shorten their lifespans with crap from hypermarkets. Nice job on Libya and Iraq as well!
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