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Depleted uranium in Iraq, a perspective from the field

PAX's Wim Zwijnenburg talks about his personal experiences of researching DU use, its legacy and management in the field.
20 October 2014 - ICBUW

In a State of Uncertainty cover Since 2011, PAX has been conducting fieldwork in Iraq to assess the impact of depleted uranium (DU) weapons, first used in the country in 1991 by the US and UK. On numerous occasions, our partners in Iraq, where PAX has worked since 2002, had expressed concern over the potential impact of DU on health and the environment. However there seemed to be little interest among international NGOs active in the country in taking up the issue. The programme began with a roundtable in Amman, which brought together Iraqi health professionals, the former Iraqi Minister of the Environment, humanitarian demining organisations, ICBUW and local NGOs.

My first visit to Iraq left a deep impression. Travelling through the desert near Basrah, we were welcomed by a landscape filled with oil refineries flaring gas, and on approaching and entering the city, destroyed tanks and other military vehicles were still present. Over the last three years, we have visited huge military scrap metal storage sites, still easily accessible despite the presence of DU contaminated vehicles. In them, scrap metal collectors strip the wrecks for valuable metals. Local residents regularly discussed their concerns about the hazards associated with the vehicles. Unprompted, they talked about the health problems in their villages and how they link them with the storage of contaminated scrap. They had all heard about DU, but needing an income to support their families, and even with the exposure risks it entailed, processing scrap was the only option open to them.

Cover of Laid to Waste report Similar concerns emerged during consultations with local and international NGOs operating in the area. The ICRC had been approached by tribal leaders, who argued that the need for the clean-up of DU 'exceeded any other humanitarian concerns' in their communities. Similarly, doctors in Basrah reported that they were struggling to deal with the increased rates of cancers and birth defects they were witnessing. Although there are many risk factors for these health problems in Iraq’s environment, it is indisputable that fear of the presence of toxic and radioactive DU in these areas is having a significant impact on the wellbeing of Iraqi civilians in the south.

At the governmental level in Baghdad and Basrah, representatives from the Ministries of Environment and Science and Technology freely acknowledged their inability to tackle the issue. The government’s efforts were constrained by a lack funding, by a lack of expertise for complex clean-up operations, by the absence of facilities for the management and storage of DU and, critically, by the failure of the US to release targeting coordinates.

The international community has so far failed to adequately address these frustrations and concerns. As Iraq has now called for assistance, action is needed. This must start with greater transparency over DU use in the country, and assistance and support for clean-up must follow. In raising this issue, the United Nations First Committee has an opportunity to reassure the Iraqi people that their voices and concerns are being heard.


This article first appeared in Reaching Critical Will's First Committee Monitor: