BASRA, Iraq, Jan 2001 (AFP) - Residents of Iraq's second largest city are filled with dread at the growing debate over depleted uranium (DU) munitions and suspected links to cancer, as Iraq marks the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War.
"Leukaemia and radioactive pollution are now the number one topic of conversation among the people here in Basra," said student Saleh Neema.
Basra, located near the Kuwaiti and Iranian borders, bears the scars of both the conflict over Kuwait and the 1980-1988 war against Iran. Most walls are still pockmarked by bullets or by shrapnel from exploding shells.
"People are worried and living in fear of contracting cancerous diseases because of the pollution" from DU bullets fired by the US-led allies during the six-week war that broke out on January 17, 1991, said merchant Abdullah Hamid.
Awad Badran, a retired civil servant from Basra, which together with its outskirts has a population of around one million, said the widespread fear was having a social impact.
"Things are so bad in Basra that quite a number of people thinking of getting married are hesitant for fear of having children with deformities," he told AFP.
Iraq was hit with the force of seven nuclear bombs in 1991, according to civil defence chief General Kassem al-Shamri, calculating on the basis of 141,921 tonnes of ammunition with which the country was pummelled in the Gulf War.
As many as 940,000 rounds of DU were used. That, together with the explosion of two allied military vehicles loaded with DU arms, "polluted the environment and caused great damage to the public's health," he said.
Al-Jumhuriya, an official daily, has blamed DU for the deaths of 50,000 Iraqi children in 1991 alone and said it was behind a dramatic increase in cancer rates over the past decade, citing a report from Iraqi experts.
The worst polluted areas, covering more than 15 square kilometres (six square miles), were the Rumaila oil field, Al-Shamiya airport and the Kuwaiti border area, all not far from Basra, it said.
Iraq has long argued that US and British use of DU weapons during the Gulf conflict caused "irreparable damage" to its people and environment, also pointing to previously unknown congenital deformities among infants.
NATO agreed last week to establish a special committee to investigate possible health risks from the use of DU munitions after a series of cancer deaths among veterans of the Balkans conflict.
British MP and anti-sanctions campaigner George Galloway has announced plans to to organise a "Big Ben to Basra" boat trip in May to stir public opinion against the embargo and the use of DU to attack southern Iraq during the Kuwait war.
DU emits low levels of radiation, and is known to be dangerous if fragments are inhaled or ingested. The material is used to penetrate armour and concrete bunkers because it is denser than other metals.