The View from Here: Gulf war attacks claim toll in children

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Editors note: This is Part II of a two part column. The first part can be found in the Sept. 5 edition of El Defensor Chieftain.

Three weeks ago, The View from Here looked back on the precarious state of Iraq’s children during the interim between our two Gulf wars. Children died in droves — approximately 576,000 of them. “Several hundred tons” (the Pentagon’s exact estimate) of depleted uranium wafted around on desert winds. The bombarded nation’s water and sewage treatment was toast. And Iraq’s Gulf oil had been set ablaze. U.N. sanctions assured that no help could reach the very young in time.

This week, we examine a staggering epidemic of birth defects inflicting Iraqi infants following the second U.S./NATO invasion 10 years ago. This is the war we all clearly recall. But this time ‘round, reports began streaming from the tattered Iraqi medical establishment that birth abnormalities had suddenly gone stratospheric. Basra and Fallujah are the epicenter of this reproductive storm.

Basra was NATO’s point-of-entry in 2003. First, of course, it had to be heavily carpet-bombed. Fallujah got super-clobbered twice in 2004, nearly pulverized in retaliation for the gruesome deaths of four Blackwater “contractors” there. The fire-power unleashed on these two cities was the most massive of the war and included white phosphorous (yes, napalm) and probably depleted uranium.

Word gets out
Last October, the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology published the most revealing study to-date of the damage wrought. For instance, by the end of 2003, al-Basrah Maternity Hospital registered a birth defect rate 17 times higher than the rate of congenital defects from ten years earlier. And over the next seven years, the incidence of malformed newborns and stillborns in Basra increased 60 percent!
By the end of 2004, Fallujah experienced a staggering rise in birth abnormalities — an ascending spiral which continues to this day. For two years after “the siege,” 45 percent of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Then, between 2007 and 2010, half of all infants born in Fallujah exhibited gross malformations. (Before the war, this figure was 1-in-10 — still high, following a dozen years of earlier NATO bombing.)

These birth defects are horrific and in some cases, unprecedented. Heads with no faces, numerous and random extra limbs askew, internal organs on the exterior of torsos, babes with one eye socket in the middle of their forehead. Fallujah’s spina bifida rate is over three times the world’s average. Hydrocephalus (water-on-brain) occurs six times more frequently than in America.

And tumors, too
Corroborating these horrors, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health states that the rates of both cancer and genetic damage in Fallujah appears to be 14 times higher than those observed among the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pre-Gulf War data from the Basra/Fallujah/al-Ramadi region reflected a cancer incidence of 40 per 100,000. After Desert Storm, the rate shot up to 800 per 100,000.

Incredibly, within a year of the siege of Fallujah, this cancer rate doubled to roughly 1,600 per 100,000 persons. What in Hades was in those munitions? Videos of the medical examinations of infants’ deformed bodies are available for the world to see. But a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson stated: “We are not aware of any official reports indicating an increase in birth defects in al-Basrah or Fallujah that may be related to exposure to the metals contained in munitions.”

AH-HA! Metals! Like lead and mercury and maybe a little radioactive heavy metal thrown in for good measure. Too much of these can sure mess up a kid, or a pregnant mom, or a father’s genes. The Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology report found levels of lead poisoning five times higher in the children with crippled bodies than in kids who seem healthy. Mercury levels were six times higher.

To save a generation
Smells like a smoking gun — or rocket-launcher or something. Why, in the first three years of the Iraq War, American forces alone fired 6 billion bullets there. In the midst of that spree, Iraq hit the highest leukemia mortality rate of any country in the world. Inspired by preliminary findings from the above research, the World Health Organization launched its own investigation into the birth defects of southern Iraq.

WHO studied 18 “high-risk” districts, sampling 600 households per district. Their exhaustive report was scheduled for release last November. But many fear it has been suppressed. WHO had already announced they would not investigate any munitions-based causes of the birth defect epidemic. This spring, a former U.N. assistant secretary general revealed, “The U.S. government sought to prevent WHO from surveying areas where depleted uranium had been used.”

Lead researcher and environmental toxicologist from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, laments WHO’s paralysis: “In a serious health emergency as we see in Iraq, such an extensive survey of public health must be widely publicized to attract international support and expertise. Medical experts, epidemiologists, remediation staff and environmental cleanup specialists must be summoned to address this crisis and save lives.”

Additional sources: Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, The Independent, Inter Press News.

Albrecht is a San Antonio, N.M., resident, and a longtime national and international affairs columnist.