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Has the U.S. committed environmental crimes in Iraq?

Evidence suggests a link between heavy U.S. munitions and a steep rise in birth defects



Fouling rivers, plants and soil in a manner you know will cause death or injury to large numbers of innocent people is an environmental crime.

I first heard the term "environmental crime" during a public gathering of hacky-sacking peace activists gathered in a remote North Carolina forest in 2003. After sharing a joint and engaging in a lively "Widespread vs. Phish" debate, the conversation turned to environmentalism and war. One of the hippies bitched to his comrades about how Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of river-dwelling Iraqis (the so-called Marsh Arabs) by damming and diverting the rivers and streams that flowed through their communities.

So sayeth the unwashed peacenik: "According to one estimate, the population of the Marsh Arabs in 1991 stood at half a million. But after Saddam's humanitarian and environmental crimes, it is believed that there are at most 200,000 left, and less than 40,000 of those still in Iraq."

Hold on, hold on. I think I misread my notes.

That wasn't a dirty hippy. That was dirty former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense and architect of the 2003 Iraq invasion Paul Wolfowitz.

And wait. He wasn't toking with his brothers under the canopy; he was testifying in front of the U.S. Senate about how Hussein's crimes justified the U.S. invasion.

Sorry about that. But, hey, isn't it funny how my sloppy but completely unintentional error suggests that concern over environmental crimes in Iraq should transcend partisan bickering? Even the most ardent supporter of the Iraq invasion agrees that environmental crimes in Iraq are something Americans should worry about.

So if you're in the mood to worry, worry about this: Compelling evidence suggests a strong link between the use of heavy U.S. munitions and a steep rise in birth defects.

This month, the BBC's John Simpson took a camera crew to the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where he discovered a "disturbing large number of cases of birth defects." Doctors at Fallujah General Hospital (an actual hospital, not a soap opera) told him the number of cases has increased annually.

If the name Fallujah rings a bell, it's because in April and November 2004, the U.S. pounded the crap out of what was then a dense city of more than half a million people. The November offensive to retake the city from Sunni insurgents is often described as the fiercest urban combat the U.S. Marines have seen since Vietnam.

Doctors in Fallujah believe the type and quantity of ordnance the U.S. used there may have left behind toxic pollution responsible for a sharp rise in birth defects and childhood cancers. Their suspicion is compounded by the fact that the neighborhood in Fallujah that produces the most sick and malformed children is al-Julan, an insurgency stronghold along the Euphrates River that the U.S. bombed almost constantly during the two offensives.

Simpson's reporting repeated many of the same horrifying facts revealed last November by the Guardian newspaper's Martin Chulov. He notes 15 times more birth defects in Fallujah last year than a year prior. Jim White at the blog Firedoglake says the gap between the end of battle and the rise in birth defects in Fallujah matches what happened in Basra after the first Gulf War. The fighting ended in 1991, followed roughly four years later by a spike in birth defects.

The leading culprit at the moment appears to be uranium in U.S. armor-piercing rounds. Uranium, even the so-called "depleted" uranium used by the military, is a carcinogen. Uranium rounds were used extensively in Fallujah in 2004 and Basra in 1991. The Iraqi doctors Simpson spoke to aren't jumping to conclusions. They simply want a U.N. investigation. Because proponents of the Iraq War profess to be concerned about environmental crimes, I'll go ahead and assume they want an investigation, too.

By the way: Noxious by-products of the fighting in Fallujah may soon be causing brain defects in American children, too. The video game Six Days in Fallujah will soon be available on Xbox360 and PlayStation.

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