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Depleted uranium shells propaganda target by Iraqis

Iraq pushes health concerns about shells

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON --Iraq has tried to manipulate world opinion in recent months in an effort to prevent the United States from using its most effective armor-penetrating shells, the kind that decimated the Iraqi tank fleet in the Persian Gulf War, U.S. military officials say.

The Iraqi government has been highlighting potential health consequences for civilians if U.S. forces use shells made with "depleted uranium," blamed for causing a variety of ailments after the Gulf War, according to Col. James Naughton, director of munitions for the U.S. Army Materiel Command.

U.S. forces have refused to do without DU shells in the Iraq war, but one reason they hope to avoid major battles in Baghdad, Basra and other urban centers is to avoid claims that they have endangered civilians by using DU ammunition.

Depleted uranium is regarded as one of the 21st century's biggest advances in military technology, said Naughton and Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a military expert on depleted uranium, at a Pentagon briefing. Some 640,000 pounds of DU shells were fired during Operation Desert Storm, mainly by tank-hunting Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts, Marine Corps AV-8 Harriers and Abrams tanks.

DU is a very dense metal, 1.7 times heavier than lead. It is a byproduct of manufacturing fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors and material for nuclear weapons. Processing leaves it depleted of radioactivity, hence its name. It is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.

DU has an advantage over special steels and tungsten, previous mainstays in antitank armor-piercing shells. Tips of bullets made from those materials blunt and mushroom after they strike armor plate, reducing penetration.

DU, in contrast, is "self-sharpening." As a DU shell passes through armor, surface layers peel off, keeping the tip sharp enough go 25 percent deeper than traditional rounds.

Peelings and other impact debris, however, may splatter several hundred feet from the impact before falling to the ground. Dust-like particles may remain in the soil for years, becoming airborne in dry, windy conditions or finding their way into sources of drinking water.

Whole shells are another source of environmental DU. When an aircraft's antitank shells miss, they don't just kick up puffs of dust, as suggested on fuzzy TV images. DU shells can penetrate 20 feet into the ground.

The military uses layers of DU in tank armor, as well. In Operation Desert Storm, DU made U.S. tanks almost invulnerable. There are stories of Iraqi tanks lying in ambush, firing as a lone tank enters their trap. The enemy round just bounces off. The U.S. crew proceeds to kill all the enemy tanks, including one protected by a thick wall of sand.

"It really happened," Naughton said. "That's how much of an advantage it gives us. So we don't want to give it up."

Naughton said Iraq has been behind some of the negative publicity about DU's health effects, in an effort to sway world opinion against U.S. use of DU weapons.

American veterans of the Gulf War first raised concerns that exposure to DU might be a cancer risk. United Nations and Italian studies later identified DU contamination in Iraq and Kosovo as a possible health threat to local children. During the 1999 Kosovo conflict, U.S. aircraft fired about 30,000 shells containing almost 9 tons of DU at 112 sites.

The studies said it was theoretically possible that children who inhale or eat contaminated soil could get high radiation doses, or kidney damage.

Officials in Basra, the southern Iraq city much in the war news, also blamed DU for a rash of birth defects, childhood cancers and other ills among residents.

"The Iraqis tell us terrible things happened to our people because you used it last time," Naughton said. "Why do they want it to go away? They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them -- OK?

"There's no doubt that DU gave us a huge advantage over their tanks."

A World Health Organization medical team visited Basra and proposed a study to see why so many people in the city were so sick. But Saddam Hussein refused.

"Unless that study is done, it is going to be very difficult to try to understand what is behind the large number of people being ill," Kilpatrick said. No tank battles occurred in Basra or other population centers during the Gulf War, DU is too heavy to have blown into Basra from nearby areas, he added.

A half-dozen major studies, done by government and non-government agencies in the United States and Europe, have failed to find health problems associated with DU.

"Taking into account the pathways and realistic scenarios of human exposure, radiological exposure to depleted uranium could not cause a detectable effect on human health," a European Union study concluded in 2001.

A 2001 WHO study found that DU's hazards are "likely to be very small." A RAND Corporation study in 1999 and another 2001 project funded by the European Parliament concurred.

The Defense Department is monitoring about 90 Gulf War veterans who were exposed to high levels of DU. Most have DU fragments in their bodies as a result of friendly fire incidents.

No ill effects have been found so far.

Still, the Pentagon is understandably wary about urban warfare that spreads tons of DU around big Iraqi cities, possibly leading to future claims about a health disaster among residents.

How likely is it that DU would be used in cities?

"The only reason we would be using it in an urban environment is if our opponents take their tanks into an urban environment and we have to kill them," Naughton said.

"So is it likely? That's a tactical choice, and if our opponents take that tactical choice, you could see that activity."

Michael Woods can be reached at mwoods@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7072.

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