In this year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that “the Iraq war is coming to end”—at least for Americans, leaving “with their heads held high” because our “commitment has been kept.”
For millions of Iraqis, however, the war is far from over—in fact, for a growing number of families in cities that were nearly destroyed during the years of insurgency and counterinsurgency, the crisis is only beginning. As one Iraqi American said, “Just because we [Americans] don’t pay attention doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t paying attention.”
According to studies and eyewitness accounts over the past few years, Fallujah—an Iraqi city that was practically obliterated by U.S. heavy artillery in two major offensives in 2004—is experiencing a staggering rate of birth defects. The situation echoes similar reports from Basra that began to circulate after the first Gulf War in 1991.
The litany of horrors is gut-wrenching: babies born with one eye in the middle of the face, missing limbs, too many limbs, brain damage, cardiac defects, and missing genitalia.
Upon touring a clinic in Fallujah in March 2010, the BBC’s John Simpson said, “We were given details of dozens upon dozens of cases of children with serious birth defects. . . . One photograph I saw showed a newborn baby with three heads.” Later, at the main U.S.-funded hospital in the city, a stream of parents arrived with children who had limb defects, spinal conditions, and other problems. Authorities in Fallujah reportedly warned women to hold off on having babies at all.
Ayman Qais, director of Fallujah’s general hospital, told the Guardian that he was seeing two affected babies a day, compared to four a month in 2003. “Most [deformities] are in the head and spinal cord, but there are also many deficiencies in lower limbs,” he said. “There is also a very marked increase in the number of cases of [children] less than 2 years old with brain tumors.”
It is widely accepted among scientists, doctors, and aid workers that war is to blame. The presence of so much expended weaponry, waste and rubble, massive burn pits on U.S. bases, and oil fires has left a toxic legacy that is poisoning the air, the water, and the soil in Iraq.
“I think we have destroyed Iraq,” says Adil Shamoo, a biochemist at the University of Maryland who specializes in medical ethics and foreign policy. Shamoo, an Iraqi American, believes it’s “just common sense” to link Iraq’s troubled health to the relentless bombing of its towns and cities and the polluted aftermath of fighting and occupation.
The Department of Defense disagrees, rejecting claims that the military is to blame for chronic illnesses, birth defects, and high rates of cancer among the local population and its own service members, who were exposed to the same elements. Defense officials did not return calls and e-mails to comment on issues raised in this story.
The Iraqi government has done little to address the public health crisis in Fallujah and elsewhere. Authorities cannot afford, and seemingly lack the will, to clean up the festering pollution around the country’s population centers, even as many Iraqis still clamor for clean drinking water and basic medical supplies.
A joint study by Iraq’s environment, health, and science ministries in 2010 found 42 sites that are contaminated with high levels of radiation and dioxins—residue, the study claims, from three decades of war. Critics believe there are hundreds of other locations just like these.
Areas around urban centers like Fallujah and Basra accounted for 25 percent of the contaminated sites. The pollution of Basra dates back to at least 1982, when Operation Ramadan, the biggest land battle of the Iran-Iraq war—in which the U.S. was supplying Saddam Hussein with billions of dollars worth of weapons, training, and support—shook the desert. In the 20 years since the first Gulf War, Basra has seen a marked increase in childhood illnesses. According to researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health, the rate of childhood leukemia more than doubled in Basra between 1993 and 2007.
In December, a report published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health declared that since 2003 “congenital malformations” were observed in 15 percent of all births in Fallujah. Heart defects were the most common, followed by neural tube defects, which cause irreversible and often fatal deformities. By comparison, major birth defects affect only an estimated 3 percent of live births in the United States and an average of 6 percent of all births worldwide.
“The timing of the birth defect occurrences suggests that they may be related to war-associated long-term exposure to contamination,” the report states. “Many known war contaminants have the potential to interfere with normal embryonic and fetal development.”
Another recent article, “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009,” published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in July 2010, undertook a door-to-door survey of 4,843 Fallujah residents in 711 houses. Acknowledging that such surveys have their limits, the authors highlighted three compelling findings, including an 18 percent reduction in male births after 2004 and a spike in infant mortality.
“The results reported here do not throw any light upon the identity of the agent(s) causing the increased levels of illness and although we have drawn attention to the use of depleted uranium as one potential relevant exposure, there may be other possibilities,” wrote the authors.
Indeed, other possible contaminants are manifold—but depleted uranium has long been a prime suspect.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a dense, highly toxic, radioactive heavy metal that the military regularly uses for its shielding and penetrative capabilities. The Army’s Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles have it in their armor and in their ammunition.
In addition to their long-range penetration abilities, DU-tipped weapons cause further damage by instantaneously setting their targets on fire.
After battle, the carcasses of tanks and remains of exploded and unexploded DU munitions produce radiation, while tiny particles of heavy metal get into the dust and can travel long distances in the air. This dust can be deadly when it is inhaled, doctors and environmental scientists say.
The United States left an estimated 320 metric tons of DU on the battlefield after the first Gulf War. DU rounds conferred a distinct advantage over the Iraqis, destroying some 4,000 of their tanks, many of which still pollute the desert landscape. “The invisible particles created when those bullets struck and burned are still ‘hot.’ They make Geiger counters sing, and they stick to the tanks, contaminating the soil and blowing in the desert wind, as they will for the 4.5 billion years it will take the DU to lose just half its radioactivity,” wrote Scott Peterson in the Christian Science Monitor.
In another article, Peterson documented evidence of DU in Baghdad, checking “hot spots” around battle debris with a Geiger counter. He noted that the Air Force had admitted that its A-10 “Warthog” planes had shot 300,000 rounds during the “shock and awe” phase of the invasion.
“The children haven’t been told not to play with the radioactive debris,” Peterson wrote. He saw only one site where U.S. troops had put up handwritten warnings in Arabic for Iraqis to stay away. “There, a 3-foot-long DU dart from a 120 mm tank shell was found producing radiation at more than 1,300 times background levels. It made the [Geiger counter] staccato bursts turn into a steady whine.”
Getting an accurate picture of how DU has been used by American forces in Iraq since 2003 has been impossible. At a March 14, 2003, press briefing, less than a week before the invasion, Colonel James Naughton of the U.S. Army Materiel Command boasted that Iraqis “want [DU] to go away because we kicked the crap out of them” in the tank battles of 1991. “Their soldiers can’t be really amused at the idea of going out in basically the same tanks with some slight improvements and taking on Abrams again.”
The bragging stopped after “shock and awe.” Officials now insist that DU exposure is not responsible for serious health problems in Iraq. Confronted with the evidence of birth defects in Fallujah, Pentagon spokesman Michael Kilpatrick told the BBC last year, “No studies to date have indicated environmental issues resulting in specific health issues.”
The exact composition of the munitions expended during the fighting in Fallujah in late 2004 remains unknown. But the scale of the pollution can be gauged by the magnitude of the bombardment. According to Rebecca Grant, writing for Air Force Magazine in 2005, the U.S. conducted relentless air assaults in the first battle of Fallujah from March through September 2004 and launched a second phase that November.
Grant describes a “steady pace of air attacks” in a mostly urban “manhunt” using AC-130 gunships and fixed-wing aircraft, even after commanders were told early on to scale back due to political considerations over collateral damage. F-15 jets would swoop down and strafe insurgents to provide ground cover while marines called in strikes on cornered insurgents from GPS-guided missiles like the new 500-pound GBU-38 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition), which could “pluck” buildings right “out of the middle of very populated areas.”
Grant’s account does not include the use of DU and even white phosphorous, which, when it comes into contact with human flesh sizzles it right off the bone. A year after doctors in Fallujah began reporting the telltale burns, a Pentagon spokesman admitted to the BBC that that white phosphorus was indeed “used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants” in 2004. Initially, the military had insisted it was used only for battlefield illumination.
“When they went in they basically pulled out all the stops,” said investigative journalist Dahr Jamail, who was in Fallujah in 2004.
The problem with trying to identify a primary contributor to birth defects in Iraq is that the country is a cauldron of contamination. Aside from the polluted water, there are the ubiquitous toxic plumes from burning waste on U.S. bases, as well as oil and gas fires dotting the landscape. No fewer than 469 incidents of oil and gas blazes, mostly from insurgents blowing up pipelines, were recorded between 2003 and 2008.
Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people and allegedly directed his men—fleeing the 2003 invasion—to sabotage the old water treatment plant at Qarmat Ali, just north of Basra where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. The working theory is that they used an anti-corrosive powder containing huge amounts of hexavalent chromium, a chemical known to cause cancer.
Some of the Oregon National Guard soldiers who later worked and lived at the plant—assured by defense contractor Kellogg, Brown, and Root that Qarmat Ali was safe—are now so sick they can barely walk. “This is our Agent Orange,” veteran Scott Ashby told The Oregonian in 2009, referring to the herbicide sprayed by U.S. forces over huge swaths of the Vietnamese countryside from 1961 to 1971.
The comparison to Agent Orange is an apt one. As in Vietnam a generation earlier, Americans have rushed to the emotional exits in Iraq, chalking the war up to a blunder best resigned to the history books. Ignoring the steady whine of their moral Geiger counters, the U.S. public neatly tucks away photographs of deformed Iraqi babies next to the fading memories of Vietnamese children and American veterans scarred by battlefield chemicals. Collective denial has turned out to be empire’s best friend, as a Southeast Asian foreign policy disaster has given way to a 30-year catastrophe in the Middle East.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a columnist for Antiwar.com. Excerpted from The American Conservative (April 2011), a refuge for “traditional conservatives” who routinely challenge the party line. www.amconmag.com