Swans Commentary » swans.com Special Issue on Iraq - February 2, 2004  







Depleted Uranium
The Pentagon Betrayal Of GIs And Iraqis

Sara Flounders and John Catalinotto




(Swans - February 2, 2004)   Students at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C., watched the video, their eyes opened wide. Many of the students there are active or former military personnel from nearby Marine Camp Lejeune, enrolled for career retraining. The video, Metal of Dishonor: the Pentagon's Secret Weapon, exposes the dangers of the depleted uranium (DU) weapons currently being used by the U.S., most recently in Iraq.

Sharon Eolis, a health care worker who traveled to Iraq in 1998 and 2000, told the students that depleted uranium weapons have compromised the immune system and health of tens of thousands of military personnel and civilians both in the U.S. and in the Gulf region. Eolis said that in Iraq she saw children with cancers that had been relatively rare before 1991, and that many people believed they were linked to the tons of DU weapons used by the U.S. during the first Gulf War. Eolis was in Jacksonville with an anti-war group that on November 15, 2003, had come to visit an imprisoned Marine war resister.

One woman at the meeting said, "My husband just came back from Iraq, and I know he got exposed from the shells, because that's what he does for a job. Now how does he get checked?"

A man sped out of the room and stood outside crying. His wife was a Gulf War veteran. She recently died of breast cancer. "All I have left of her is her ashes," he said. "Can we tell from them if she died because of DU?" (1)

Up to that day, these active and retired military personnel considered themselves and the Pentagon on the same side. They thought themselves patriotic. But they were confronted with overwhelming evidence of betrayal. The Pentagon's betrayal of those serving it has been a driving force for many of those in the movement to forbid the use of DU weapons, a demand first raised by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark in his 1992 book, The Fire this Time. Former soldiers, even former U.S. officers like Army Reserve Major Doug Rokke, now with the American Gulf War Veterans Association (AGWVA), and retired Army Colonel Dr. Asaf Durakovic, now with the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC), have provided the expertise needed to ferret out the truth about these weapons that are dangerous to those they are used against, to those who use them, and to any living things nearby.

Radioactive and Toxic

The Pentagon uses DU shells because their high density allows them to effectively penetrate steel armor. They have devastated thousands of Iraqi tanks in both wars, cutting through their armor like a hot knife through butter. An otherwise useless by-product of the uranium-enrichment process, DU is also attractive to military contractors because it is so cheap, often offered for free by the government.

But DU is an environmental and health disaster. The problems occur because DU shells burn on impact, releasing microscopic, radioactive and toxic dust particles of uranium oxide that can travel hundreds of miles with the wind. (2) DU can contaminate by seeping into the land and water, but the gravest danger that nearly everyone agrees exists comes when these particles are inhaled. From the lungs they go to the blood stream, often landing in vital organs. Inside the human body, DU can harm these internal organs both by its chemical toxicity as a heavy metal and its release of low-level doses of radiation over a long period of time. The toxic and radiological effects of uranium contamination may weaken the immune system. They may cause acute respiratory conditions like pneumonia, flu-like symptoms and severe coughs, renal or gastrointestinal illnesses. (3)

By now, half of all the 697,000 US soldiers involved in the 1991 war have reported serious illnesses. According to the American Gulf War Veterans Association, more than thirty percent of these soldiers are chronically ill and are receiving disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Such a high occurrence of various symptoms has led to the illnesses being named Gulf War Syndrome. (4)

This number of disabled veterans is shockingly high. Most are in their mid-thirties and should be in the prime of health. Before sending troops to the Gulf region, the military had already sifted out those with disabilities or chronic health problems from asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, cancers and birth defects.

The Pentagon used DU weapons in the 1991 Gulf War, in the war on Yugoslavia in 1999, and in Afghanistan. In the 2003 war on Iraq, the Pentagon used its radioactive arsenal mainly in the urban centers, rather than in desert battlefields as in 1991. US soldiers, along with British, Polish, Bulgarian, Spanish, Thai, South Korean, Italian, Japanese, Dutch and other troops sent to join the occupation will suffer the consequences. The real extent of injuries, chronic illnesses, long-term disabilities and genetic birth defects won't be apparent for five to ten years.

A Problem in the Long Term

The greatest sacrifice to DU will be made by many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people who will continue to be exposed to its dangers. The impact of tons of radioactive waste polluting major urban centers may seem a distant problem to Iraqis now trying to survive in the chaos of military occupation. They must cope with unexploded shells, power outages, door-to-door searches, arbitrary arrests, routine shooting of civilians at roadblocks, outbreaks of cholera and dysentery from untreated water, untreated sewage and uncollected garbage, and unemployment among more than half the work force. But along with these current threats are long-range problems.

Christian Science Monitor writer Scott Peterson reported in May 2003 about taking Geiger counter readings at several sites in Baghdad. Near the Republican Palace where US troops stood guard and over 1,000 employees walked in and out of the building, his radiation readings were the "hottest" in Iraq, at nearly 1,900 times background radiation levels. (5)

A few months later, the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported elevated radiation levels at six sites from Basra to Baghdad. One destroyed tank near Baghdad had 1,500 times the normal background radiation.

The Pentagon and United Nations estimate that US and British forces used 1,100 to 2,200 tons of armor-piercing shells made of depleted uranium during attacks in Iraq in March and April -- far more than the estimated 375 tons used in the 1991 Gulf War. (6)

A team from the Uranium Medical Research Center, an incorporated non-profit research organization, carried out extensive radioactivity testing in Iraq in October 2003. The UMRC is associated with scientists and medical doctors in Europe, the UK, and other parts of the world. The UMRC team spent thirteen days taking radioactivity readings and making other studies throughout the major battle sites of the war. It was at these sites and especially where there were extended battles between the invading forces and Iraqi armor that the team found the highest radioactive readings. These included the extended battle near Al Basra between British forces and Iraqi regular and guerrilla troops, and battles between the US invaders and Iraqi defenders at Al Nasiriyah, the southern approach to Baghdad and the International Airport. (7)

DU wasn't the only terror weapon US forces used. The UMRC paper also describes how "3,000 civilians were incinerated by one morning's attack from aerial bursts of thermobaric and fuel-air bombs near the airport," according to local witnesses. (8)

One of the most prolonged ground engagements took place near Al Basra, centered in the Abu Khasib suburb. According to the UMRC report, Abu Khasib was the most radioactive battlefield its researchers identified, with readings of about 2,500 times the reference level at the larger diameter, tank armor penetration channels. Around Basra itself some areas have background radioactivity of about 20 times the reference level, which in Basra and Baghdad are already above North American baseline levels. (9)

Although the Pentagon and the British military minimize the dangers from DU in their public statements, the teams they sent out to explore the sites of the tank battles came wearing complete equipment for protection against radiation, according the UMRC report. Also, engineering units using bulldozers buried many of the radioactive tanks and other armor along with shells and battlefield debris, covering them with dirt or sand trucked in from outside areas, but left others exposed. In some instances this was done in such a haphazard way as to create additional dangers.

For example, US military engineering units and Iraqi contractors working in southwestern Baghdad in the Auweirj district close to the International Airport stirred up much of the soil as they were moving it around. On one day, when a strong wind blew up from the desert, the UMRC team saw a dust storm over a mile high rising from that area and blowing into Baghdad. This meant that the uranium oxide, instead of lying in or on the ground, was again in the air traveling for miles and again liable to be breathed, thereby endangering both the Baghdadis and the many US troops stationed at the nearby major military base that used to house the Iraqi Republican Guard. (10)

Pentagon Enforces Cover-up

For years the government described Gulf War Syndrome as a post-traumatic stress disorder. It was labeled a psychological problem or simply dismissed as mysterious unrelated ailments. The Pentagon and the Veterans Administration treated the health problems of Vietnam vets suffering from Agent Orange poisoning in the same way. The US government denies that DU weapons can cause sickness. But before the first Gulf War, where DU weapons were used extensively, the Pentagon's own internal reports warned that the radiation and heavy metal of DU weapons could cause kidney, lung and liver damage and increased rates of cancer. Ignoring these dangers, the Pentagon denied publicly that DU use was related to the enormously high rate of sicknesses among GIs following the war.

Today the Pentagon plays an even more duplicitous role. It continues to assert that there are no "known" health problems associated with DU. But Army training manuals require anyone who comes within 75 feet of any DU-contaminated equipment or terrain to wear respiratory and skin protection. There is no way Iraqis or the occupying soldiers can keep 75 feet away or use respiratory and skin protection in the 120-degree heat of an Iraqi summer. The American Gulf War Veterans Association reports that suffering veterans are receiving little, if any, medical treatment for their illnesses.

Whenever veterans become ill, the term 'mystery illness' seems to be the first and often the only diagnosis that is ever made. Veterans are then left to fend for themselves, sick and unable to work, with little hope of leading a normal life again. (11)

Doug Rokke of AGWVA, former head of the US Army DU Project, is himself seriously ill with respiratory problems. Rokke reports that US troops presently in Iraq are already falling sick with a series of Gulf War Syndrome symptoms. The AGWVA says the Department of Defense has information regarding "mystery" deaths of soldiers in this latest war and the emergence of a mysterious pneumonia that has sickened at least 100 men and women. (12)

Between 1991 and 2003, Iraq's National Ministry of Health organized two international conferences to present data on the relationship between the high incidence of cancer and the use of DU weapons. It produced detailed epidemiological reports and statistical studies. These data showed a six-fold increase in breast cancer, a five-fold increase in lung cancer and a 16-fold increase in ovarian cancer. Because of the US-imposed sanctions, Iraqi doctors and scientists were barred from presenting their research papers in most of the world. (13)

US Position: No Cleanup

While the British military has admitted that British Challenger tanks expended some 1.9 tons of DU ammunition during major combat operations in Iraq this year, the Pentagon has refused to disclose specific information about whether and where it used DU during this 2003 campaign. It also is refusing to let a team from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) study the environmental impact of DU contamination in Iraq.

Despite this refusal, it is public knowledge that the U.S. made extensive use of weapons that can fire DU shells. These include the A-10 Warthog tank-buster aircraft with 30-mm cannons that can fire up to 4,200 DU rounds per minute; the AC-130 gunship; the "Apache" helicopter, and Bradley fighting vehicles that fire anti-armor 105-mm to 120-mm tank rounds containing DU.

The U.S. followed the same tactics in the wars in the Balkans. While claiming full cooperation with UNEP's Balkans studies, the Pentagon delayed releasing target locations for sixteen months. It gave misleading map information. Then bomb, missile and cluster-bomb targets were excluded. NATO allowed ten other teams to visit or clean up sites before UNEP inspections started. Washington refuses to acknowledge DU use anywhere or that it poses any danger. To acknowledge radiation poisoning would immediately raise demands for a cleanup.

The Pentagon also has used its weight to control the media's handling of DU. John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and was a founding editor of USA Today. Hanchette told DU investigator Leuren Moret that from 1991 to 2001:

as editor of USA TODAY, he published news breaking stories on the effects of depleted uranium on Gulf War Veterans. Each time he was ready to publish a story about devastating illnesses in Gulf War soldiers, he got a phone call from the Pentagon pressuring him not to print the story. He has been replaced as Editor at USA TODAY. (14)

The Only Solution: Organized Resistance

DU has become a sensitive issue in Korea, in Japan, in Puerto Rico because of the Vieques struggle, with Dutch troops in Iraq, and also in the Netherlands. Though Washington assured the Dutch government it used no DU weapons near Al-Samawah, the town where Dutch troops were to be stationed, Dutch journalists and anti-war forces found holes in the US stories. They picked up an internet letter sent by E. Pennell, a crew member on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle of the 1st Infantry Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, who described how his crew fired a 25-mm DU round as they encountered seven Iraqi troops in the town of Al-Samawah. The Dutch government had to debate the question in parliament. (15)

Officers and politicians in imperialist countries have always treated rank-and-file soldiers as cannon fodder, considering these young people expendable. The occupied or colonized people are not counted at all. As a global movement against imperialist wars grew over the past century, military planners made great efforts to hide the true costs of war, especially the human cost. The nearly 60,000 US casualties in the Vietnam War provoked a mighty mass anti-war movement. Even before US casualties reached 100 soldiers, the movement to "Bring the Troops Home" had gained momentum in 2003.

With this great Pentagon betrayal of its ranks making DU another issue requiring organization and struggle, the International Action Center has published a brochure that ends with the following demands:

This new movement must demand a true accounting of the enormous human costs of the war. A growing international movement must demand not only full care for US troops but also full reparations for the Iraqi people, and a cleanup of the toxic, radioactive waste in Iraq. The cost of the war must be calculated in terms of bankrupt social programs here in the U.S. and the health of all the people who were in the region during the war and will be in the years to come. (16)

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© Sara Flounders and John Catalinotto 2004. All rights reserved. Please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. See our reprint policy.

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Other Essays in this Special Issue

By topic: Previous || Next || Issue Cover Page || Contents

Or jump to any one author (in alphabetical order): Tanweer Akram || Justin Alexander || Anthony Arnove || Naseer Aruri || Jan Baughman || George Capaccio || Milo Clark || Gregory Elich || Sara Flounders & John Catalinotto || Manuel García || Denis J. Halliday || Edward S. Herman || Rania Masri || Thomas J. Nagy, et al. || Michael Parenti || Louis Proyect || John Sloboda || Gerard Donnelly Smith || Michael W. Stowell



Iraq on Swans (all articles regarding Iraq published on Swans)

Outside Resources on Iraq (Web sites of interest)

Additional Resources (compiled by Tanweer Akram)

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1.  Pratt, Minnie Bruce; "Outside Camp Lejeune/Pickets support imprisoned Marine resister," Workers World, November 27, 2003 - http://www.workers.org/ww/2003/funk1127.php (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

2.  Dietz, Leonard; "DU Spread and Contamination of Gulf War Veterans and Others," in Metal of Dishonor, Second edition, International Action Center, 1999, p. 134.  (back)

3.  Durakovic, Asaf; "Medical Consequences of Internal Contamination with DU," Metal of Dishonor, S10-S13.  (back)

4.  "New Revelation Surfaces About Gulf War II 'Mystery Illness,'" August 8, 2003 - http://www.gulfwarvets.com/news13.htm (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

5.  Peterson, Scott; "Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq," The Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 2003 - http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0515/p01s02-woiq.html (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

6.  Johnson, Larry; "War's Unintended Effects/Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons Lingers as Health Concern," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 4, 2003 - http://www.mail-archive.com/balkannews@yahoogroups.com/msg00595.html (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

7.  "Abu Khasib to Al Ah'qaf: Iraq Gulf War II Field Investigations Report, Uranium Medical Research Center, Installment I," November 2003, http://www.umrc.net/downloads/Iraq_report_1.doc (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

8.  Ibid.  (back)

9.  Ibid.  (back)

10.  Ibid.  (back)

11.  "New Revelation..."  (back)

12.  "New Revelation..."  (back)

13.  El-Bayoumi, Ashraf; "Depleted Uranium Symposium Held in Baghdad, Iraq, in December 1998," Metal of Dishonor, S1-S5.  (back)

14.  Moret, Leuren; "Interview with former USA Today editor John Hanchette," January 29, 2003 - http://traprockpeace.org/moret_25nov03.pdf (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

15.  Van den Berg, M.H.J.; "Dutch MPs and SFIR troops not informed about use of depleted uranium in south Iraq," the Review of International Social Questions (RISQ), published in Electronic Iraqnet: http://electroniciraq.net/news/1006.shtml (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

16.  Flounders, Sara; "Iraqi Cities Hot With Depleted Uranium," http://www.iacenter.org/images/du-703.pdf (last visited, January 10, 2004).  (back)

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Published February 2, 2004