WASHINGTON - Citing concerns about civilians' health, Iraq tried to manipulate public opinion in recent months to prevent the United States from using tank-busting shells made with depleted uranium, according to a U.S. Army official.
Col. James Naughton, director of munitions for the Army Materiel Command, which supplies ammunition, said the United States rejected the bid.
But it apparently left officials skittish about exposing civilians to depleted uranium and ranks high among the reasons why allied forces hope to avoid battles inside Baghdad, Basra, and other Iraqi population centers.
Colonel Naughton and Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a military expert on depleted uranium, briefed reporters on the material a few days before war broke out in Iraq.
Depleted uranium is regarded as one of the 21st Century's biggest advances in military technology. It decimated Iraq's tank fleet in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
About 640,000 pounds of depleted uranium shells were fired during Operation Desert Storm, mainly by tank-hunting Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts, Marine Corps AV-8 Harriers, and Abrams tanks.
Depleted uranium is a very dense metal, 1.7 times heavier than lead. It is formed as a by-product in production of fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors and nuclear weapons material. Processing leaves it depleted of radioactivity. It is 40 percent less radioactive than natural uranium.
Depleted uranium 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.
In contrast, depleted uranium is self-sharpening. As a depleted-uranium penetrator 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 water sources.
Whole shells are another source of depleted uranium.
When an aircraft's antitank shells miss, they don't just kick up puffs of dust, as suggested on fuzzy television images of battle scenes. Depleted uranium shells can penetrate 20 feet into the ground.
The military uses layers of depleted uranium in tank armor. In Operation Desert Storm, it made American tanks almost invulnerable to Iraqi shells.
Col. Naughton suggested that Iraq has been behind some of the negative publicity about depleted uranium's health effects to sway world opinion against America's use of depleted-uranium weapons.
American veterans of the Persian Gulf War first raised concerns that exposure to the material might be a cancer risk. United Nations and Italian studies later identified depleted uranium 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 depleted uranium 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 blamed depleted uranium 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,” Col. 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?”
A World Health Organization medical team visited Basra and proposed a study to see why the city was 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,” Dr. Kilpatrick said.
He noted that no tank battles occurred in Basra or other population centers during the Persian Gulf War. Depleted uranium, he said, is too heavy to have blown into the city.
A half dozen major studies, done by government and non-government agencies in the United States and Europe, have failed to support health concerns about depleted uranium.
“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 depleted uranium's hazards are “likely to be very small.” A RAND Corporation study in 1999 and another 2001 project funded by the European Parliament concurred .
“Even if the estimates of risk are 100 times too low, it is unlikely that any excess of fatal cancer would be detected within a group of 10,000 soldiers followed over 50 years,” said a United Kingdom study.
The Defense Department is monitoring about 90 Persian Gulf War veterans who were exposed to high levels of depleted uranium. Most have such fragments imbedded as a result of friendly fire incidents.
No ill effects have been found so far.
Still, the Pentagon is wary about urban warfare that spreads tons of depleted uranium around big Iraqi cities, possibly leading to future claims about a health disaster among residents. How likely is it that depleted uranium 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,” Col. Naughton said. “So is it likely? That's a tactical choice, and if our opponents take that tactical choice you could see that activity.”