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Dutch military in Iraq delays troop transfer from suspected DU contaminated area

When Dutch marines arrived in a base camp near the town of As Samawah, Iraq, to replace American troops last summer, they measured unacceptably high levels of radioactivity. Yet troop transfer from the area was delayed by three weeks, putting both Dutch and American troops at risk of exposure to depleted uranium (DU).
29 September 2006 - RISQ

On July 24th last year, Dutch troops arrived in 'Camp Smitty', a base set up by the Americans in an abandoned train depot near the town of As Samawah. Located along the railway track from Basra to Baghdad, and consisting of several concrete buildings big enough to lodge both troops and their vehicles, the location seemed a perfect outpost.

Dutch marine resting on his field bed inside a train depot at Camp Smitty, 28 July 2003Set to replace the 442nd US Military Police Brigade stationed in the depot since early June, the Dutch troops put up their field beds inside, granting them at least some shelter from the ever-present desert heat and sand storms in the area, even though the buildings were dirty, dusty, vermin-infested and most windows were broken. Meals and other collective gatherings were held outside on the yard along the railway tracks amidst abandoned train engines and carriages, wrecked Iraqi tanks, unexploded ordnance, and other remnants of war.

Settled all right thus by military standards, the Dutch troops could have made Camp Smitty their 'home', just as the Americans had done for months. Yet shortly after their arrival, they made an alarming discovery, which according to Sgt. Juan Vega, senior medic with the US 442nd, led the Dutch 'to pitch camp in the desert instead'. As Mr Vega told the New York-based Daily News: "The Dutch swept the area around the train depot with Geiger counters and their medics confided to [me] they had found high radiation levels."

According to Mr Vega and other soldiers interviewed by the paper, the radiation may have come from the remains of DU shells scattering the compound or one of the wrecked Iraqi tanks, which had been hauled onto railroad cars just outside the depot. Yet, since DU can take the form of a very fine, toxic and radiocative dust that easily spreads, a much greater part of the compound may have been contaminated.

As quite a few of the American troops who were based in Camp Smitty, are still suffering from chronic nausea, skin rashes and migraines, they suspect they may have inhaled a toxic dosis of DU dust during their stay. Already, four out of nine veterans who volunteered for a test, were found to have higher than normal levels of uranium in their urine.

While the US Department of Defence has recently announced it will investigate the case of the veterans from Camp Smitty, military personnel representatives in the Netherlands have raised concerns about the health of Dutch troops that have stayed there.

Yesterday, a spokesperson of the Dutch Military of Defence conceded that "upon arrival, the marines declared part of the compound off-limits," assuring that "all necessary precautionary measures were taken." A source in one of the military personnel unions confirmed that they were informed by the Ministry about "certain measurements, which led the troops to close off a building on the compound." However, the source said, "no reference was made to the possibility of DU contamination there."

As the new camp out in the desert was still under construction, the Dutch troops stayed in the train depot at least until mid August. Pictures archived on the website of the Ministry of Defence show marines resting on field beds set up inside one of the buildings and sharing meals on the yard outside as late as 6 August 2003. By that time, they had been on the compound for over two weeks, even as 90 of them fell ill" some so much so that they had to be IV-fed. According to the Ministry they had contracted a virus, "due to the high temperatures, the change in food and lifestyle, and the higher concentration of viruses in the air of hot countries such as Iraq."

Note: All over Iraq, the remains of spent DU shells and DU-contaminated debris have been found littering the streets in urban areas. Some wrecked vehicles have been towed away, and the most obvious contaminated sites are marked. However, most locations have not even been identified let alone cleaned, even though there is a widely shared consensus that DU contamination can be a potential health hazard.

To minimize the risk of exposure, foreign troops have been instructed to stay away from potentially contaminated areas as much as possible or to wear, at least, respiratory protection and gloves when it is inevitable to enter such sites.

As for Iraqi civilians, there is no indication that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has properly informed the population about DU contamination. The British Ministry of Defence merely affirms that Iraqi locals have been warned "that they should not go near or touch any debris they find on the battlefield" Perhaps this would have sufficed, were it not for the fact that quite a few battles have been fought in densely populated areas, where it is virtually impossible for residents to avoid all remnants of war.

This article was first published by RISQ | Review of International Social Questions, 08 April 2004