26 Apr 2014

America’s Grim Legacy in Iraq

The Iraq War is now eleven years old, still tearing up the country but no longer with the assistance of U.S. troops. Between 500,000 and 700,000 people died in 2003-2011. The monthly civilian toll now is as high as it’s been since 2008. It is a riven country, at odds with itself, fending off jihadists from Syria, morally and physically drained by more than twenty years of war (starting with Operation Desert Storm in 1991) and crippling sanctions.


And that’s not all. We now know, thanks to the courageous efforts of several researchers, that environmental toxins have likely poisoned the country, toxins that are also due to the U.S.-instigated war. The munitions the United States used in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom are the apparent culprits, and, like the grim Agent Orange legacy in Vietnam, controversy and denial animate much of the discussion.


Two agents are at issue. One is depleted uranium, which is used to harden bullets and mortar shells to enable them to more easily penetrate the target. Depleted uranium (DU) is slightly radioactive and harmful if inhaled, though the extent of this hazard is unclear and most studies discount widespread impacts. The most likely effect is chemical (rather than radiological), and affects kidneys, according to studies conducted in manufacturing DU applications. Other metals used in munitions could have similar effects.

A second candidate is white phosphorous (WP), which was used extensively in Fallujah and possibly elsewhere by U.S. forces to light up a field of battle and as an incendiary. A known carcinogen, the army called its use of WP “shake and bake.” A shell containing WP could burn toxic smoke for 15 minutes. Israel also used WP extensively in its assault on Gaza in 2008-09, but said last year it would no longer use the agent.

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