The truth is finally beginning to emerge about radioactive weapons used by Western forces in their wars against Iraq and in the Balkans. The revelations on depleted uranium come as the tenth anniversary of the start of the West's 1991 Gulf War against Iraq approaches this month. Several European governments that are part of the NATO military alliance have launched inquiries into depleted uranium weapons.
This follows a spate of deaths and illnesses among soldiers who served in NATO's 1999 war in the Balkans. The same governments show little or no concern for the people in Iraq and the Balkans who are suffering the effects of the hundreds of tons of depleted uranium the West dropped.
US forces unleashed hundreds of thousands of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq, leaving some 300 tons of the radioactive material. Civilians in Iraq have paid a terrible price, and scores of Western soldiers have suffered from the debilitating Gulf War syndrome, whose symptoms parallel those of the former Balkan War soldiers.
The most likely cause of all the deaths and illnesses is exposure to the radioactive material the depleted uranium weapons are made of (see box). For years Western governments and military leaders have insisted there is no long term danger from depleted uranium. The growing evidence from the Balkans is now forcing them to shift ground. Italian prime minister Giulano Amato last week called for an inquiry into depleted uranium weapons after it emerged that six Italian soldiers have died from leukemia after serving in the Balkan War.
Another 24 Italian solders are suffering from a mystery illness, dubbed Balkan War syndrome. The Belgian government has also called for an inquiry after five of its ex-Balkans troops died from cancer. Portugal has reported a similar death. France has reported leukemia cases. The British and US governments were resisting any talk of a link between cancer and depleted uranium weapons last week.
Yet in Britain it was revealed that former Balkan War soldier Kevin Rutland is suffering the debilitating symptoms of Balkan War syndrome, too. The growing illness among NATO troops who fought in the Balkan War mirrors that among Western troops who fought in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Scores of troops have suffered from a mystery Gulf War syndrome, whose symptoms include fatigue, weight and hair loss, and kidney problems. The growing evidence from the Balkan War may now push some Western governments to express concern for these troops.
But they are silent about the far greater ongoing effects of their poisonous weapons on the people of Iraq or the Balkans.
'Leukemia rates leapt 70 percent'
NATO forces fired at least 31,000 depleted uranium tipped shells in the Balkan War. Tons of the radioactive debris from the weapons is lying scattered across the region, mostly in Kosovo and Serbia. US planes used some 10,000 rounds of depleted uranium weaponry in the 1995 conflict in Bosnia.
No one yet knows the long term damage to the health of people living in these areas. One indication comes from the horror in Iraq, where US forces fired some 850,000 rounds of depleted uranium weaponry.
A 1998 World Health Organisation report found a huge increase in cancer rates, especially childhood leukemia, in southern Iraq, where most of the war took place. Journalist Felicity Arbuthnot visited southern Iraq and reported in 1999 that 'Iraq's leukemia rate has leapt 70 percent since the Gulf War'. As well as such cancers, she found 'an astonishing rise in congenital abnormalities'.
She described seeing in one hospital a typical victim, 'a baby born an hour ago. 'The tiny being made small bleating noises. It had no genitalia, no eyes, nose, tongue, oesophagus or hands. Twisted legs were joined by a thick web of flesh from the knees.' She reported that 'vegetation in the area shows up to 84 times background radiation'. The potential effects on pregnant women are all too obvious. Bosnia has suffered similarly.
After US forces bombed the Ramont Institute near the town of Brataunac in 1995 Yugoslav scientists reported: 'There are unusual and unnatural occurrences in vegetation, among animals and human beings. Bizarre, massive illness has affected cows. Rapid hair loss is happening to boys of school age.' An official investigation by the United Nations Environment Programme in Kosovo this year confirmed fears of depleted uranium contamination. Head of the programme Pekka Haavisto said, 'There remains a risk for the local population. Much ammunition is deep in the ground and affects groundwater.'
Protesters will be blockading the Faslane nuclear submarine base on the Clyde next month against Britain's weapons of mass destruction. Last February over 400 people joined a protest outside the base, and 185 people, including socialist Member of the Scottish Parliament Tommy Sheridan, were arrested.
Faslane is home to Britain's fleet of Trident submarines, with their obscene nuclear missiles which could devastate the world.
Join the Big Blockade Monday 12 February, 7am Faslane
Contact Trident Ploughshares 2000 for details on 01324 880744
Foreign Office minister Peter Hain defended sanctions on Iraq, which mean that cancer sufferers are denied medicine, just as many European governments voiced fears about the effects of depleted uranium weapons
Campaigners have long warned about the dangers of depleted uranium. Retired biologist Margaret Ryle spoke to Socialist Worker about depleted uranium during the 1999 Balkan War: 'Uranium is a radioactive material. It is chemically poisonous and affects a variety of biological processes. Depleted uranium (DU) was a waste product of the nuclear industry until it started being used in ammunition. It is used in ammunition because it is high density. It is very hard and it is better at penetrating armour than conventional shells. When, on impact, the DU catches fire and burns it produces a smog of fine particles which is radioactive and can spread over a wide area. It can be inhaled by people and get into the water supply and so onto the food chain. This can give rise to cancers, foetal deaths and malformations. There is no threshold below which no harm is done.'
New anti-civilian bomb
The New Labour government is developing a barbaric new weapon modelled on those used by Russian forces in the atrocities they committed against people in Chechnya. Russian troops used weapons known as 'thermobaric' or 'fuel-air' against people in the Chechen capital, Grozny, as they flattened it in 1999.
Now the British government has admitted that its Defence Evaluation and Research Agency near Rochester in Kent is developing a new version of these missiles. The Daily Telegraph's military correspondent last week described the nature of such weapons:
'The bomb releases a cloud of inflammable gas, vapour or explosive particles which is then detonated. The shock wave and vacuum pressure destroy the internal organs of anyone within range. The effects can be horrific, with liver and spleen ruptured, lungs collapsed and eyes forced out of their sockets.'
Normal rockets and shells can often pass straight through a building and allow defenders to continue resistance. The fuel-air missiles can kill all within a building. New Labour is refining the weapons specifically for military use against 'resistance' in urban fighting-whether against rival military forces or insurgent civilian rebels.