BASRA, IRAQ — During the 1991 Gulf War, much of the battlefield was awash in a radioactive and toxic stew: radioactive particles from depleted-uranium (DU) bullets, nerve and other chemical agents, and fumes from hundreds of oil fires in Kuwait.
An array of Iraqi physicians say they have lately seen a sharp rise in the types of severe health diagnoses - such as cancer - that they associate with DU and other war-related substances.
Many Iraqi officials blame DU for the postwar health breakdown in Iraq, though their studies can provide only circumstantial and anecdotal evidence. Iraq does not have the laboratory capacity to confirm a direct link between DU and health problems.
In May, it complained to the United Nations about the "appalling damage" caused by DU.
In a bid to win international sympathy toward breaking United Nations economic sanctions, Iraq has tried to politicize the issue. It portrays the use of DU as an "illegitimate tactic" of "genocide," making an accurate assessment of its effects difficult.
Hard to single out a cause
Fingering DU as the sole cause of any illness is difficult. "The battlefield was dynamic and fluid, and exposures [to everything] were multiple and varied - you can't separate them," says James Tuite, a former Senate investigator who has focused on Gulf War chemical exposures.
Still, Iraq's poor health situation has persuaded the World Health Organization that a survey of DU's impact on Iraq is warranted. The WHO is awaiting Iraqi approval for the study.
"Ultimately, when the final chapter is written, DU will have a large portion of the blame [for health problems]," says Michio Kaku, a well-known author and professor of physics at City University of New York.
Others make the point that DU may have had an adverse effect beyond Iraq. "[The use of DU] is a tragedy that not only befell the Iraqi solders and civilians," says Sami al-Aragi, a senior Iraqi health official. "It befell American and British troops as well."
The Pentagon - which has yet to resolve a host of health issues raised by many Gulf War veterans - considers Iraqi claims about DU's effects "disinformation."
Physicians working in a city near the former battlefields, however, do report a sharp increase in health problems.
"People tell funny stories," says Thamer Hamdan, an Iraqi orthopedic surgeon in Basra who was trained in Scotland and the United States. He says he has seen an "astonishing increase" of malformations and cases of cancer among civilians in the area. Physicians back up government figures showing malformations citywide have tripled since the Gulf War.
There has been a "very significant increase" in leukemia, says Dr. Muna Elhassani, a British-trained specialist who runs the national cancer registry in Baghdad. "It's too early now to make a direct link with DU," she says. "It takes time."
Studies in Kuwait
The search for answers continues elsewhere in the Gulf, as well. The issue of lingering DU contamination in Kuwait is a political hot potato. Roughly half of the 320 tons of DU fired in the Gulf War was shot in Kuwait, to oust Iraqi occupation troops.
But because Kuwait was liberated by an American-led coalition, analysts say that Kuwait's official position is in "lock step" with the Pentagon. In other words: DU residue poses no long-term risk.
"It is safe for the public," says Yousif Bakir, director of Kuwait's Radiation Protection Division (RPD). "There is no contamination higher than background levels."
"That's a political answer," says one of Kuwait's senior scientists, upon hearing the official denial.
*American veterans face off with the Pentagon on depleted uranium's long-term effects.
*Weighing one alternative already adopted by the US Navy: a bullet made of tungsten.