When the Iraqi people have managed to pull themselves together following the most recent bombing by US and UK forces, and as they continue on with their daily lives in constant terror of the next attack, they will still have to deal with effects of the 1991 Gulf War which, 10 years on, remains an ever present threat to their existence. Six years on from the imperialist attack on Bosnia, and 18 months after the NATO action in Kosovo, life for those same people imperialism pretended to have so much compassion for is beset by constant danger. In each of these so-called “humanitarian-inspired” acts of aggression, the attacking forces used depleted uranium weaponry; a highly toxic, extremely radioactive substance that continues to claim thousands of lives long after the official war has ended; an environmental disaster which will take billions of years or billions of pounds to remedy.
AN ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE
Depleted uranium is formed as a by-product of the production of fuel for nuclear reactors. Its use as highly destructive weapon material presents a convenient “solution” to the problem of nuclear waste. Radioactive elements are almost impossible to dispose of. Depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Because it is essentially a waste product, depleted uranium can be acquired by munitions manufacturers very cheaply. When depleted uranium is dropped in bombs over distant countries, the problem of its disposal is passed away from its producers.
Depleted uranium is also a fearsome weapon. Ordnance coated in it gains a superior ability to piece through armoured tanks. Its particles explode in flames upon impact and a dust cloud of fine radioactive particles is released in its wake. It is these highly toxic particles which represent disaster on an immeasurable scale for anyone coming into contact with them, and for the surrounding environment.
In an environment contaminated with depleted uranium, it is almost impossible to escape ingestion of radioactive material, and just one particle is enough to make you very sick. For those refugees returning to their homelands, and those inhabitants of war zones in Iraq and the Balkans who never managed to leave, every day life presents the risk of radioactive contamination:
“working in the fields, walking about, just being there, touching objects, breathing and drinking water are all risky”
(Piotr Bein, Polish author of ‘NATO in the Balkans’). It is estimated that upwards of £350 billion would need to be invested in order to clean up radioactive contamination in Iraq.
It’s not just the immediate environment and inhabitants that are affected by the radioactive waste. The UN Commission on Human Rights has labelled depleted uranium a
“weapon of indiscriminate effect”
, recognising that the power of these weapons is much more lasting and destructive than just the elimination of enemy tanks. Borne by air, water and soil, the radioactive particles can be carried long distances from the site where the ordnance may originally have been dropped. Once water and soil become contaminated, radioactivity can pass into the food chain. Most of the food for southern Iraqi city, Basra, is grown in an area just to the east of the main Gulf War battlefield.
Following the NATO bombing of Serbia, increased toxic substance levels in the atmosphere were registered in Greece and experts warned that Albania, Macedonia, Italy, Austria and Hungary could all expect to be similarly affected (Professor Christos Zerefos, World Meteorology Organisation, reported in the
Truth in Media Bulletin
Iraqi victims of the imperialist war of 1991 continue to stack up. Almost immediately doctors began to see a marked increase in the incidence of leukaemia, cancer and birth deformities. During the first eight months of 1991, 50,000 children died of cancer, renal failure, and internal diseases previously unheard of. In the heavily bombed south of the country, around the city of Basra, the cancer rate has quadrupled and the incidence of birth defects has tripled since the Gulf War. Every hospital has heartbreaking stories of disease and deformities on a scale that defies belief. Dr Zenad Mohammed reports from her hospital in Basra:
“In August we had three babies born with no head. Four had abnormally large heads. In September we had six with no heads, none with large heads and two with short limbs. In October, one with no head, four with big heads and four with deformed limbs or other types of deformities”.
Al Akri, Iraqi specialist in nuclear medicine reports
“seeing about 50 patients a day with cancer”
. Before the Gulf War, Iraq had some of the best hospitals in the Middle East. Now, crippled by sanctions illegally imposed by Britain and the US, the chances of a victim of depleted uranium surviving are slim. UK journalist, Felicity Arbuthnot, spoke to Dr Rad Alijanabi, Chief Resident at the Saddam Paediatric Hospital, Sahara who admitted
“in the UK and US leukaemia is a treatable disease, yet due to a lack of chemotherapy we have not achieved one cure – only some remissions – in the last eight years”.
It is not only the civilian populations of these bombed nations that continue to suffer long after the bombs have stopped falling. Similar types of disease and deformities have been encountered on a large scale by returned imperialist soldiers who fought in Iraq and the Balkans. 90,000 of the 697,000 US troops who fought in the Gulf War have reported medical problems including respiratory, liver and kidney problems, loss of memory, headaches, fever and low blood pressure (statistics cited on Campaign Against Depleted Uranium (CADU) website). Birth defects among children born to returned armed service men and women are disproportionately high. Aburthnot reports that in one returned soldiers’ community in the US, 67% of children had congenital abnormalities,
“ears, eyes or fingers missing, severe blood diseases and respiratory problems”.
The governments of these armed service people continue to deny that any of these people are suffering depleted uranium poisoning. The symptoms are euphemistically labeled “Gulf War Syndrome”. Many victims are repeatedly told that their physical complaints exist only in their head.
Victims of depleted uranium can be found even further afield. CADU reports that the area surrounding DU weapon testing sites in Scotland has the highest rate of childhood leukaemia in the country.
IMPERIALIST AGGRESSOR STATES DENY INVOLVEMENT AND RESPONSIBILITY
Governments of the aggressor nations who used DU in their illegal actions against Iraq and Serbia have denied that the level of radioactivity in DU is harmful, denied using the chemical at all, and denied that there is any causation between diseases and illness suffered and the dropping of DU. In 1993, when the fact that depleted uranium had been used in the Gulf War began to emerge, the governments of the UK and US insisted that there was “no immediate danger” and that their weapons were “only mildly radioactive” (cited by Arbuthnot in her article
For months following the war against Yugoslavia in Kosovo, NATO resisted UN demands that it admit using DU and confirm where exactly DU was dropped so that local populations could be properly protected, assessments of damage carried out and cleanup operations commenced. When the information finally did come it was not sufficient to offer any real assistance. On 7
February 2000, NATO Secretary General Robertson confirmed that DU was used throughout Kosovo during approximately 100 missions but that “
at this moment it is impossible to state accurately every location where DU ammunition was used”.
Despite NATO’s apparently having the interests of ethnic Albanians at heart in contemplating the armed intervention in Kosovo, refugee populations have been allowed to return with no advice whatsoever on how to protect themselves from possible radiation poisoning. Yugoslav nuclear scientist, Snezana Pavlovic describes the glaring lack of responsibility displayed towards the population of Kosovo by their “liberators” in these frank terms:
“Our government anticipated the use of depleted uranium weapons and organised the protection of soldiers against whom it was used. In Serbia, the contaminated sites are fenced off and access to them is forbidden, but not in occupied Kosovo, where NATO denies that there is any danger at all. In fact, it is principally Albanian civilians, particularly the children, who will be the victims of depleted uranium.”
In the bourgeois press Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosovic are painted as the worst war criminals, men of unparalleled evil who rule their nations with an iron fist. Iraq and Yugoslavia are nations without “democracy”, where no one is free. And yet, under the guise of a “humanitarian liberation” intervention, imperialist nations have relentlessly bombarded the homeland of millions of people with radioactive material, with no regard for the local populations, present or future. If the war in Yugoslavia was really fought for the freedom of the ethnic Albanian population, then why were the refugees allowed to return ignorant of the unseen radiation risk they were facing and without any form of protection? If the continued attacks on Iraq are motivated by the desire to see a people freed of a cruel, oppressive leader, then why are those same people suffering disease and death as a result of depleted uranium contamination and the continued application of sanctions?
These wars were not motivated by humanitarian concern, but fought in the interests of monopoly capital – oil profits, mineral wealth and geopolitical advantage. Iraq and Yugoslavia, by pursuing a somewhat independent line, by refusing to obey the diktat of imperialism, especially US imperialism, have put themselves beyond the pale Because of this they represent a hindrance to the complete world market domination which imperialism seeks.
“McDonald’s cannot flourish with McDonald Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist which keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the United States Army, Airforce, Navy and Marine Corps”
[Thomas Freidman, NY Times 38 March 1999]
This is imperialism – when crushing the resistance of relatively tiny countries who wish to preserve their economic independence matters more than the millions of lives which the invasions continue to claim; when procuring cheap, destructive weapons matters more than the devastating environmental destruction which the use of those weapons entails.
We must continue to take up the cause of nations who fall victim to imperialist attack. We must be aware of the economic incentive that determines when imperialist nations will take up arms against another. We must speak out and condemn NATO and imperialist war-mongering governments for the unparalleled war criminals that they are.