The Independent

WHO to investigate radiation fall-out from Gulf war in Iraq

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad
October 14, 1998

The World Health Organisation may soon begin a study into the effects on Iraqi civilians of depleted uranium shells in the 1991 Gulf War - and enrage the Western nations that used them during and after the liberation of Kuwait.

The shells are widely blamed for a frightening increase in cancer - especially among Iraqi children - and may have contaminated large areas of southern Iraq. Independent readers responded to reports from the region by sending 100,000 to an appeal for medicines, which have just been delivered.

The government in Baghdad believes that a WHO report would finally confirm their suspicions that the Allies saturated the land with radiation.

A three-man WHO team has already visited Iraq's Hospital for Nuclear Medicine in Baghdad to inspect its records of cancer increases since the war, and is due to report in the next few weeks on how an investigation can be conducted into the use of the Allied ordnance.

If the Iraqi Ministry of Health approves, WHO personnel would spend two years taking evidence on the use of the shells and the effect on the health of millions of Iraqis whose families lived near the sites of the battles and bombardments.

For Saddam Hussein, of course, this would provide further propaganda in his campaign to lift the punitive UN sanctions against Iraq - always supposing sanctions are still in place in two years - and to accuse the Americans and British of "war crimes".

Hitherto, it is Saddam himself who has been accused of crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, if a WHO team concludes that the shells and missiles that use armour- piercing depleted uranium penetrators - and cause radioactive and chemically toxic dust to be scattered around the target - are to blame for the Iraqi cancer epidemic, there will be substantial pressure on the Gulf War victors to pay compensation to Iraq and to ban future use of the controversial weapons.

Ironically, the two-storey Iraqi Hospital for Nuclear Medicine stands next door to the Baghdad WHO headquarters whose director, Dr Habib Rejab, has confirmed to The Independent that WHO representatives have made a preliminary study of Iraqi cancer data. Last week, the hospital's senior medical staff also allowed me to inspect their statistics on post-war cancer cases - figures that suggest a correlation between leukaemia increases and the war.

Of course, the very name of Saddam Hussein tends to contaminate Iraqi-compiled government statistics as surely as the Allied armies may have contaminated the land of Iraq. But the hospital's graphs appear to be accurate - they start long before the 1991 war and, in some cases, clearly show a fall in cancer when one might have expected an increase. If propaganda experts have been at work, they did a poor job.

Dr Mona el-Hassan has been drawing up cancer statistics in Iraq since 1976 and her files are both professional and convincing. "There has been a changing pattern of cancers since the war, including a double incidence of cancer of the intestinal tract," she says. "There has been an increase in the incidence of breast cancer among young females. Nowhere else in the world has there been a high incidence below the age of 30."

Her latest statistics - still to be published - show a startling increase in leukaemias in Iraq's southern provinces, the area most affected by the 1991 war. Some areas, such as Wasit, show an actual decrease - from 226 cases in 1989 to 203 in 1994 and then 224 in 1996 - but other figures bear out doctors' suspicions. The childhood cancer registry, for example, shows an increase in boys with lymphatic leukaemia aged up to 4 and between 5 and 9, from 68 and 94 in the 1989-1991 period to 86 and 98 between 1992 and 1994.

During the same periods, myeloid leukaemia has increased from 2 cases to 12 (in the 0 to 4 age group) and from 5 to 18 in the group aged 5 to 9 years. Total myeloid leukaemia figures for children aged up to 15 go from 26 in the earlier table to 61 in the most recent.

In similar age patterns, the increase in lymphatic leukaemia among girls is equally disturbing: 118 cases in the 1989-91 period compared with 174 between 1992 and 1994. The statistics show an overall increase among both boys and girls during the same periods for cancer of the eye and thyroid and Hodgkin's disease. Interestingly - and perhaps another reason to trust them - the statistics show a decrease in bone cancer among girls and cancer of the kidney. Iraqi propagandists would not have made the mistake of leaving those figures intact.

Annual figures for overall cancer patients give a clear idea of the increases. In 1990, 7,058 new cancer cases were registered in Iraq. By 1992, the figure has soared to 8,526. The comparable breakdown figure for males is 3,913 in 1990 and 4,735 in 1992, for females 3,145 in 1990 and 3,791 in 1992.

The total of new cancer figures for 1996, still unpublished, shows an increase of well over a thousand since 1990 - from 7,058 to 8,360 - although a slight fall on the comparable figure for 1992. Iraqi officials acknowledge that 1991 figures - which show an unbelievable decrease - are of little use because they did not include cancer cases from the Kurdish Mosul province, which was then in a state of insurrection against the regime.

Iraqi doctors say there are many cancer cases that are never reported to the government. "In a small village, they will say a child is 'sick' and they will think it has some passing illness and then it dies and is buried and we never hear about it," one doctor told me.

"Other families believe it wrong to admit they have cancer cases - in case it affects the marriage prospects of their other children. So we may have far more cases than we realise.