Depleted uranium is arguably one of the most controversial weapons used in warfare since the atomic bomb. It was first used by the allies against Iraq in the Gulf War and more recently in the Kosovo crisis. Annasofie Flamand and Giles Treadle recently visited Iraq, where they discovered a subject riddled with propaganda, claim and counter-claim.
In the 42 days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 the allies dropped an explosive tonnage equivalent to seven Hiroshima-size bombs on Iraq. Part of this military ordnance included depleted uranium, used in over 4,000 tank rounds and almost a million bullets fired by the American and British forces.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a heavy metal. It is used by the military because its great density - two-and-a-half times that of lead - makes it ideal for piercing the armour of tanks and other military vehicles.
The problem is that depleted uranium is both radioactive and chemically toxic. Iraq is now claiming the depleted uranium used by the allies has contaminated the environment and exposed the population to a catastrophic health risk.
DU shells spontaneously burn on impact, creating tiny aerosolised particles in the form of a dust. This radioactive dust, say the Iraqis, is seeping into the water table, polluting the agricultural soils, and even entering the food chain. Moreover, the DU dust is carried by air, and then inhaled by locals, thereby causing increased incidence of cancer.
Iraq claims it is now witnessing an alarming increase in congenital deformities and cancers among its population due to DU.
In the Basra Children and Maternity Hospital in southern Iraq, Dr Abdel-Karim, a consultant gynaecologist, shows visitors a large room in which 70 photographs of deformed babies born at the hospital over the past five years line all four walls. It is a distressing exhibition. One picture shows a baby with no forehead, only two bulbous eyes; another shows a baby with severe cleft palette giving the face an awful disfigurement; yet another a dead baby with skin like fish-scales lying on a mortician's slab. Dr Abdel-Karim claims to have seen cases which are not cited in any of the medical encyclopaedias.
"I have noticed a rising incidence of congenital malformation in babies, particularly in the last four or five years," he says. "We also have a rising incidence of repeated miscarriage. The most common cause is chromosomal abnormality from pollution and exposure to radiation. We think depleted uranium may be...