Magazine article New Internationalist

Don't Look, Don't Find

Magazine article New Internationalist

Don't Look, Don't Find

Article excerpt

It is a typical news day: another car bomb has gone off, leaving 80 Iraqi civilians dead. Another 136 are injured. More bad news from Iraq. The mainstream media covers it, as editors realize that there is still some mileage in Iraqi horror stories. But it is an easy story to cover, a straightforward story - a war, a blast, the dead and the accused. Outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, in the slums, backstreets and hospital wards, there is another story unfolding, a story that doesn't suit the demands of 24-hour news channel soundbites and which would sit uncomfortably alongside the celebrity exposes of the tabloid press.

In 1991, a superpower and its allies engaged Iraqi tanks in open warfare. The desert became littered with the burned-out hulks of Russian-made T72 tanks, artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers. To the defenders of Kuwait's sovereignty and oil fields it was an unmitigated success. To the populations of the cities bordering these battlefields, it would become an unmitigated disaster. The US and Britain had deployed a new anti-armour weapon, a 'silver bullet' that boosted both range and accuracy. Iraq's modern, mechanized brigades stood little chance against the air and ground onslaught. That silver bullet was the radioactive heavy metal Depleted Uranium (DU).

In the years that followed, and as malnourished Iraqi civilians struggled under an ill-conceived and poorly managed sanctions regime, reports began to filter out of a sharp rise in cancers and birth defects. It was Western journalists who broke the story, but it was Saddam Hussein's media apparatus that drew a response from the Western powers. 'Ba'athist propaganda,' claimed the British Government's Foreign Office. 'In all likelihood a result of his use of chemical weapons on his own people.' It is a line that has changed little over the years.

'Yes, chemical weapons used during Saddam's time and malnutrition might have a role,' admits Dr Jawad Al-Ali, oncologist at Basra's Al-Sadr Teaching Hospital. 'We know that cancers and birth defects are multifactoral and that these factors might help or augment the other factors which then produce these diseases.

'However, from the studies in the region and the sequence of appearance of these diseases, it seems real that it is related to the use of DU in the area. It is the reality and not propaganda. We were not affected or influenced by Ba'ath Party policy at that time.'

That sequence is clearly illustrated in the histopathological (tissue analysis) reports kept by Basra Teaching Hospital. They show a range of cancers increasing exponentially throughout the 1990s. Between 1990 and 1997 uterine cancers increased by 160 per cent, thyroid cancer by 143 per cent, breast cancer by 102 per cent and leukaemia by 82 per cent. Not only were the incidence rates increasing, but their age distribution was shifting downwards, from old to young.

'The changes in the pattern of presentation, dissemination and age distribution that we are seeing are different to those within a normal population,' says Dr Al-Ali. 'We have also seen a rise in the presence of double and triple cancers in patients. We know many carcinogenic factors are available in our environment, but the rates increased only a few years after the 1991 war and now after the 2003 conflict we have started to have another alarming increase.'

At 63 years old, British-trained cancer specialist Dr Al-Ali is one of a diminishing number of physicians who have elected to stay in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Many have fled to Jordan and Europe as the security situation has deteriorated. In the last two years he has received death threats from criminal gangs and two attempts have been made to burgle his home. Three days before our interview took place, his brother and a close friend were shot dead by unknown assailants.

'It is the tight bonds to my city, the earth and the will to serve my people that have kept me working under such insecure conditions,' he says. …

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