10 January 2011. A World to Win News Service. Two recent medical studies compare the long-term effects of the U.S.-led assaults on Falluja in 2004 to what the U.S. inflicted on Vietnam – and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The U.S.-led invaders moved into this town of a few hundred thousand people just north-west of Baghdad in April 2003 and took over a local secondary school to use as their headquarters. On the evening of 28 April several hundred townspeople defied a military curfew and staged a rally to demand that the school be reopened. Rocks were thrown. U.S. soldiers stationed on the roof opened fire on the crowd and kept shooting for a long time, killing 17 people and wounding more than 70. U.S. troops also fired on a demonstration held to protest these deaths two days later. The city became a focal point of early resistance to the American occupation.
In the two assaults on Falluja in 2004, U.S. military actions made it clear that the invaders were as anxious to punish the city and its inhabitants as to retake control and root out insurgent fighters. The city’s political symbolism became crystallised in March 2004 when a military convoy carrying mercenaries from the infamous Blackwater company was ambushed and four of them killed, their charred bodies left on defiant display.
The U.S. launched the first all-out attack on Falluja shortly after. Homes, businesses and other buildings were bombed into ruins, but the invaders failed to take the city. The American military called it some of the heaviest urban combat its forces had engaged in since the battle of Hue in 1968, during the Vietnam war. By the time of the second assault in November, many fighters had left Falluja.
The U.S.’s lust for vengeance against a whole population was demonstrated by the weapons it used. Thermobaric bombs (a highly explosive mixture of fuel and air that has blast effects similar to tactical nuclear weapons) and other munitions were dropped to systematically demolish the houses and kill anyone in or near them. A modern version of napalm was also employed. Most infamous was the U.S.’s extensive and indiscriminate use of artillery shells filled with white phosphorous, an incendiary powder that sets fire to whatever it touches – and the fires cannot be put out with water. It also leaves behind a toxic residue.
The invaders made no distinction between fighters and the civilian population. In fact, U.S. troops stopped many civilians from leaving the besieged city. Their war-fighting tactics were meant, as in Vietnam, to kill all, burn all.
These facts were brought out by a few journalists in Iraq and abroad at the time. But recently new evidence has come out that the damage to Iraqis was worse and far more long-lasting than even most opponents of the occupation could imagine in 2004.
There have been recurring reports about birth defects among children born in Falluja. In January and February of 2010, three UK-based scientists organized a study to determine the facts. A trained research team accompanied by locally-trusted people was able to visit 711 homes in Falluja and worked with several thousand people to fill out a medical questionnaire. The researchers believe that the responses to questions were truthful because while confidential they could be cross-checked with medical records.
The survey revealed that since January 2005 the city’s remaining population had suffered an enormous spike in infant mortality (80 children per thousand died in their first year, most probably due to congenital birth defects). This is about four times higher than in Egypt and eight times higher than in Kuwait. The study also found “alarming” cancer rates, including leukaemia, brain cancer and breast cancer, especially among people under 34. An unusually low proportion of children under four were boys (860 per 1000), suggesting that sudden genetic damage had killed many unborn males, since the male-female balance in children older than five was normal. The birth rate for women in Falluja was about 30 percent less in 2004-2008 than in comparable periods before. This, the study concluded, could be the result of both lower fertility and birth defects, providing additional indications of possible genetic damage.
Since the study confines itself to direct evidence, the authors of the peer-reviewed paper “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth-Sex Ratio in Falluja, Iraq, 2005-2009 (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2010 – 7) wrote that that their findings in and of themselves cannot conclusively show the cause or causes of this extremely unusual and suddenly-appearing situation. However, they make two points of fact. The first is the probability, based on the medical evidence, of toxic damage to genes as the common origin of the birth defects, infant deaths and cancers. The second is that this evidence of probable “genetic stress” appeared within a year of the assaults on Falluja. The sudden shift in the ratio of boys to girls in live births almost surely places the triggering event(s) in 2004.
The report discusses similar statistical manifestations among people exposed to atomic radiation in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, UN troops exposed to depleted uranium shells in Bosnia and survivors of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The U.S. admits it used depleted-uranium assault rifle and artillery rounds during the two 2004 attacks on Falluja. It shot thousands of tonnes of this material in Iraq during a few weeks of 2003 alone.
A new study covering 2010 is even more horrifying and convincing. Lead by four doctors and researchers (two working in Falluja and two abroad), this survey of four extended families conducted at Falluja General Hospital concludes that the percentage of babies born with malformations in that city since 2003 has reached 15 percent, about 11 times the normal rate. Even worse, rather than falling off, the percentage jumped in the first half of 2010.
The most common deformities are congenital heart defects, followed by neural tube (brain and spinal cord) and skeletal defects. This cannot be a matter of bad luck. The statistical probability of such a high concentration is close to zero. Further, the authors state, such cases are most often not mainly caused by heredity – the problem usually does not come from the parents’ genes, but from damage to the unborn child’s genes due to environmental factors and the conditions of pregnant mothers. The paper says that the nature of these deaths and their known correlation with war events strongly raises the question of “war contaminants”, especially the poisoning of the environment due to metals, citing uranium as an example.
None of the parents in the particular families studied were wounded or trapped in rubble, nor is there “an obvious relationship to adjacent bombing/burning of their houses or to the activity of cleaning/recovery of injured-dead people or to personal acute symptoms with them having a child with birth defect in the following years,” the paper points out.
“This suggests that the birth defect in these families might not be due directly to acute exposure [to contaminants], but could be associated to their long term exposure and body accumulation of toxicants which persist in the environment.” (”Four Polygamous Families with Congenital Birth Defects from Fallujah, Iraq,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2011 –
In other words, the problem is likely to get worse.
In this sense, the continued process of the concentration of contaminants in the environment and their accumulation in human bodies could, as the report suggests, be similar to what happened with Agent Orange in Vietnam. The U.S. bombed much of South Vietnam with defoliants and herbicides (plant-killers) containing the toxic chemical dioxin. This was meant to get rid of the vegetation providing Vietnamese revolutionaries with cover from American attacks and kill peasants’ crops, forcing them into the cities. According to Vietnamese authorities today, about 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed and half a million children born with birth defects. (Globe and Mail, 12 July 2008. Also see Wikipedia, “Agent Orange”.)
Now, three and a half decades after the end of the war, America’s Agent Orange is continuing to kill Vietnamese. Not only are people who were exposed back then suffering horrible cancers today, and not only are their descendants afflicted by birth defects, including heartbreaking deformations, but there are increasing concentrations of the toxin among fish, animals and people. Not only have the last four decades been hell for many Vietnamese, despite the end of the war; scientists expect the next 40 years to see an enormous amount of new suffering.
In discussing depleted uranium, the latest research journal report says, “It is unclear whether its radiation-derived mutational effects or its chemical toxic effects are more relevant.” Both lead to birth defects, from exposure to the parents before the child is conceived and exposure to the mother before it is born. The chemical toxic effects are at least as bad as those from radiation. And both will last for a very long time.
Depleted uranium is, in a way, today’s moral equivalent to Agent Orange – a hi-tech fix to the problem of fighting unjust wars at a minimum cost to the oppressor by bringing into play the productive and technological superiority of the imperialist powers.
This by-product of making enriched uranium is now prized for rifle and artillery shells because it makes them better able to penetrate hard substances like metal and concrete. These projectiles catch fire after penetrating and are generally more deadly. It is known that the powder they release on impact is chemically toxic (poisonous) and radioactive (although much less than natural uranium, and not at all comparable to the bomb-quality metal). But the U.S. and its European allies will not allow so much as any discussion in the UN, the World Health Organization and other forums as to why it should not be used.
It took many years before scientific evidence that Agent Orange causes birth defects was accepted, and there is still resistance to the idea, not because the facts are unclear but because so much is at stake politically. Although these reports about Falluja are scientifically impeccable, writing and publishing them required courage because they, too, venture into what has been declared politically forbidden territory.
To help the people of Falluja, the new paper calls for further research into how the environmental contaminants work and the identification of families at risk. This would make it possible to provide help for those already affected and counselling for those families already identifiable as facing the likelihood of dead children and ruined lives. That, of course, is not likely to happen in the Iraq that the U.S. invasion and occupation has created. The U.S.-supported Iraqi authorities and their media tried to stop the earlier medical survey by labelling it “terrorist” and threatening to arrest people who cooperated with it.
This medical tragedy could be taken to stand for what the U.S. (and the UK and other allies) have done to Iraq. Although, from the media, you might think the war is over, there are still 50,000 U.S. troops there and it is not certain what the U.S. will be able to do or will be forced to do there within the broader context of its never-abandoned goals of Mid-Eastern domination and its face-off with Iran. But the toxic effects of the occupation are continuing to accumulate in Iraq and the region.