|IRAQ'S CHILDREN: VICTIMS OF A WAR THEY NEVER KNEW
million rounds of bullets tipped with uranium were fired during the Gulf
war. They slice through tanks. And this is what they do to humans Maggie
O'Kane reports on Iraq's deformed children, victims of a war they never
The movement inside her body is strange: different from her three other
children. As Suad Jope waits for her birth-time, she passes the hours and
the spasms announcing it by sliding her back along the maternity corridor's
grubby cream walls.
It's night now, the early hours. In the afternoon, her consultant, Dr
Haifa Ashahine, had stood over her bed, taken a Biro from the left breast
pocket of her white doctor's coat and traced the spine of Suad's child,
holding the X-ray above her head towards a strip light on the ceiling.
At 34, and already the mother of three children, Suad has been through
this all before. Her heavy cotton nightgown is sprinkled with pale apple
blossoms and hangs down almost covering the puffy ankles of a woman approaching
labour. That afternoon, Dr Haifa Ashahine had stopped and said: "See,
the spine ends here. There is no head."
Dr Ashahine, a senior gynaecologist at the Saddam Hussein Children's
Hospital in southern Iraq, is not shocked. If it is not a child without
a brain, then maybe it's one with a giant head, stumpy arms like those
of a thalidomide victim, two fingers instead of five, a heart with missing
valves, missing ears. The deformities have one thing in common: they are
In Iraq, the health authorities say that at least three times more children
are being born with congenital deformities than before the Gulf war. Now,
in both Britain and the United States, veterans of that same war are coming
forward with reports of sick and dying children. In Britain, the Ministry
of Defence has agreed to an A3800,000 independent survey of reproduction
that will cover every veteran that served in the Gulf.
Last summer, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine carried
out a pilot study of 400 veterans. On the basis of that, they have given
the go- ahead for a survey of every serviceman and woman who served in
the Gulf war. The study is to include specific questions about "occupation
and environmental exposures". According to the MoD, no results will
be available before the year 2000.
The brutal irony is that the most likely origin of this gene-twisting
force is not Iraqi, but Western. During the 100-hour ground war of February
1991, coalition planes fired at least one million rounds of ammunition
coated in a radioactive material known as depleted uranium, or DU.
There is another explanation for this genetic plague: the environmental
pollution caused when chemical and biological centres were blown up in
an effort to 'degrade' the Iraqi arsenal. But radiation from depleted uranium
rounds remains the most plausible explanation.
"We know that depleted uranium is toxic and can cause diseases,"
says Dr Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist who has testified before the
Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.
"This is the beginning," says Dr Jawad-al Ali, a paediatrician
and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He is based in southern Iraq's
largest hospital and has spent three years researching congenital defects
and cancers in children. "Something happened to our environment in
that war. Maybe it was DU or maybe it was the chemicals that were released
when we were bombed-we can't say for sure yet, but something has happened
to our environment.
"We even see it in the plant and agricultural life. Giant marrows,
huge tomatoes - it's clear that there has been some sort of genetic modificationsince
the war." In a Guardian investigation which has involved talking to
doctors all over central and southern Iraq - inspecting maternity logs,
birth defect registers and personal records taken by midwives and paediatricians
- a terrifying pattern emerges. There has been a clear increase in birth
defects, ranging from thalidomide-type deformities to entire villages where
the children of different families are being born blind or with internal
congenital defects in the heart and lungs. The highest concentration is
in south of Iraq.
Two hours south of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the road comes
to an abrupt stop at a fence of barbed wire some eight metres high. This
is the controlled zone, a graveyard of rusting Iraqi tanks riddled with
bullets and abandoned there since the war. The Guardian was the first independent
foreign newspaper to enter the region since the war.
Using simple radiation Geiger counters, we measured high levels of radiation
in the destroyed tanks and in the desert that surrounded them. The source
of the radiation was a substance that had never been used in the battlefield
before the Gulf war. Iraq became the laboratory for an untested and unknown
material - DU.
A byproduct of the manufacture of nuclear weapons and energy production
techniques used in nuclear power plants, DU is the heaviest metal in the
world. Britain imported 500 tonnes from the US in 1981. Its attraction
is that bullets tipped with DU are so tough that they can slice through
tanks like a knife through butter.
The problem is that when DU-tipped bullets hit the target they explode,
sending millions of tiny radioactive particles into the atmosphere. 'This
is when it becomes most dangerous,' says Arjun Makihani, the President
of the US Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Once released,
the particles can be directly inhaled, can pollute the water table and
enter the food chain, spreading radioactive pollution over thousands of
Exposure to this kind of radiation, as well as to chemical pollution,
can cause genetic damage because of the ease with which the uranium can
cross the placenta to the foetus(1). According to the Department of Defense
in the United States, at least 40 tonnes of DU were left on the battlefields
of southern Iraq.
Professor Selma al-Taha is 62 and wears a finely woven headscarf of
white silk over an impeccable bun. From a pint-sized office on the fourth
floor of the Baab al-Muadam medical college - dedicated, as every establishment
in Iraq is, to Saddam Hussein - she runs the country's only functioning
genetics laboratory. She studied for a masters degree in Human Genetics
at Edinburgh University and worked in the Western General Hospital in the
city. "Such a lovely city, so easy to get around," she says.
"And the picnics, I remember the picnics." In 1975 she established
the first genetics laboratory in Iraq and is the country's leading geneticist.
"I first began noticing the increase around 1993," she says.
"By the end of the year I was sure there was something wrong. We've
no idea of the real scale of it, because most of it is happening in the
south and people nowadays have no money to travel to the capital. Still,
from the data it's clear that we were being presented with complicated
congenital defects that we have either never seen before, or only very
"Something has happened to the environment since the war. It is
true that it could be pollution due to smoke or chemicals, but the reason
we believe the most probable cause is radiation is because radiation is
most effective on a fast-changing organism like a foetus or a growing child.
Also, the organs most susceptible to radiation, after the kidneys, are
the reproductive organ - the gonads and the ovaries. "We are getting
a huge increase in late miscarriages for unknown reasons. We're getting
mothers as young as 20 giving birth to mongol babies, which shouldn't happen.
My research shows that the number of children born with Down's syndrome-type
defects has tripled since the war."
She admits her statistics are sketchy and that from her Baghdad headquarters
she can't monitor the whole country.
Twenty-five-year old Dr Zenad Mohammed is making her own attempt to
monitor the problem. She is five months pregnant and doing her maternity
training in the Saddam Hussein Teaching Hospital in Basra - a jumble of
one-storey buildings with peeling white paint, filled with a pale odour
of disinfectant. Outside, two decorators are delicately crafting the green,
white and orange stripes of the Iraqi flag on to the concrete. Dr Zenad
is carrying her first baby and she watches these things very, very carefully.
"I'm scanning myself every day. I know I shouldn't but I'm terrified."
For the past three months Dr Zenad, terrified of giving birth to a deformed
child, has been monitoring the birth defects in their delivery room, where
20 to 30 babies are born daily. She keeps her findings in a hard-backed
grey notebook. In a scrawny blue Biro she has divided the page into columns,
in which she writes the sexes, dates of birth and weights of the babies.
In a fourth column, she logs their deformities.
She begins: "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."
Stuck up on the hot water boiler of a kitchen in Wiltshire is a typewritten
letter from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It is inviting
Darren and Julia Office to take part in a survey to investigate the "effects
of serving in the Gulf war, and in the armed forces in general, on reproduction
and child health".
Their daughter Kimberley has a congenital deformity that affects her
chromosomes. She is almost six, but the size of a three-year-old. Her deformity
has led to heart and lung problems. When it was diagnosed, their doctors
told them to go away and enjoy her life because she might not have long.
It was, they said, "just one of those things".
Warminster is bleak on a wet Saturday in December. It is a military
town with two army bases and an unmanned train station with a screen that
advises travellers to London to change at Salisbury. The Offices' terraced
home is comfortable and their daughter, Kimberley, with her stack of books
and Barbie doll, gets the lavish love and care of a six-year-old whose
suffering has broken her parents' heart.
There is a Spice Girls video and a video recorder poised to tape their
last Christmas together on the wine- and purple-checked sofa before the
arrival of the new baby.
"I started to think about it when I learned that out of the 27
in my group, three of us had children who are sick," says Darren.
"There was a baby that died at birth, another one and our Kimberley.
We were talking among ourselves, and people were saying that there were
too many sick babies. It's the kiddies I'm thinking about."
Julie is due to give birth to her second child in three weeks. As the
birth approaches, she is becoming more and more worried: "I just thought
that we had to come forward and talk about this. There are a lot who don't,
because they're still in the services and afraid of making a fuss. I can't
put my hand on my heart and say it was the Gulf war - I don't know. Nobody
knows yet. But there are too many people talking about the deformities.
We were two healthy young people. We had no history of congenital illness."
Darren went to the Gulf in October 1990 with the Queen's Royal Irish
Hussars. For most of the war he and his regiment were far from the fighting,
but for the last seven days they were at the front, at the Basra Road,
where some of a heavy air bombardment in the final days of the war led
to the death of thousands. It was here that the greatest number of depleted
uranium rounds were fired.
Darren and his unit reached the road after the dead had been looted
but before their bodies had been removed: "We were on the road for
about 10 hours. It was after the ceasefire, and with a couple of the guys
we went wandering through the wreckage. We had never heard of depleted
uranium and hadn't been warned about taking any precautions."
The village of Abbarra is two hours' drive north of Baghdad, close to
the Iranian border where the brick factories bake mud in the traditional
way and the land is fertile with aubergine and cucumber. In a compound,
the neighbours have gathered, and hot, sweet tea from delicate glasses
is offered while the children of the blind families are sent for.
Since the war, five children from three separate families have been
born here in this tiny village with a strange congenital blindness. These
families are the subject of a special study by the Baghdad Genetic Clinic.
"All their fathers served in the war," says Professor Selma
al-Taha. "There isno history of any kind of congenital blindness and
they are all from different families. The only other possibility is vitamin
deficiency, but they are farmers and relatively well off in that respect."
One of the children, Azhar, is four. She moves across the mats of the
meeting room, arms outstretched, feeling the air in front of her, calling
for her father.
The concern in Iraq is that the radiation from DU, which has a radioactive
half-life of at least 4,000 years is spreading around the country. "It's
in the food chain now," says Professor al-Taha. "Dates are being
sent from the south - oranges, tomatoes, there isn't any way to control
the spread."The birth of deformed babies is not confined to the south.
Dr Basma Al Asam has been a gynaecologist for 22 years. She works in the
Al Manoor hospital in Baghdad, one of the city's poorest. "I've been
watching this for seven years now," she says, "and it is increasing and
increasing.We're not just seeing babies born with congenital
abnormalities, but very late spontaneous abortion because of congenital
defects. In the past we used to see maybe one a month. Now it is two or
three cases per day. I've had three cases this morning and it's only 11.20."
The price of cleaning up the radioactive mess in the Persian Gulf is
enormous. It would cost 'billions' even if it were feasible, says Leonard
Dietz, an atomic scientist who wrote a report for the US Energy Department.
In the days that followed the retreat and defeat of Iraqi troops,
thousands of coalition soldiers were on the ground among the radioactive
tanks. Some picked fragments of bullets as souvenirs and wore them around
their necks.The Gulf war was the first time we saw Soviet tanks," says Chris
Kornkven, who served with the US's 304th Combat Support Group. "Many of us
started climbing around in them."
It was also common practice among British soldiers. "We all did it,"
says Darren Office. "A gang of us would go out - not too far from our
and have a look about. Lads larking around."
So far, only one British soldier has been tested for DU: Ray Bristow,
who served with his unit on the notorious Basra Road. Bristow's test was
carried out by Dr Asaf Darakovic, associate member of the American College
Physicians and professor of radiology and nuclear medicine at Georgetown
University in Washington DC. He told Bristow last month that a test had
revealed the level of radioactivity in his urine was 100 times greater
than was safe. Dr Darakovic also told Bristow that of 24 servicemen he
for radioactivity from the 144 New Jersey Transport and Resupply Corps, 14
out of 24 tested positive for radioactivity.
At a two-day conference held in Baghdad earlier this month to discuss
the use of DU in the Gulf, there was little outside interest. The agency
reports barely warranted a line of reporting in Britain and the US. "The
problem is that no one is taking this seriously," says Dr Sami-al Arajick,
organiser of the conference. "They are saying it is all Iraqi propaganda.
But it is a nightmare and it is not just us Iraqis who will find that out."
"Do your people in England know about this yet?" asks Professor Selma
al-Taha. "They don't believe us, do they?"
(Research carried at Oak Ridge National Laboratories which
controversially used uranium compounds to trace the passage of calcium
from the placenta to the foetus.)
Guardian Media Group