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One 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 knew.

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 congenital.

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 square miles.

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 rarely seen.

"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 tanks - 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 of 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 tested 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 news 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

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