Leading article: Deadly legacies of war

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The Independent Online
OUR Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, yesterday described seeing in an oncologist's office in a Basra hospital his cancer maps of southern Iraq. Their colours are lurid. For they show what seems to be a marked recent upsurge in cases. He reported, harrowingly, their human shape - the children bald from chemotherapy, the patients waiting for treatment from doctors ill-supplied with equipment and medicines.

It is difficult not to infer that carcinogens, released or active since the Gulf war in 1991, may be responsible for this health emergency. Where might they come from? Local sources suggest the huge refinery fires that burnt for weeks during the war may have released cancer-causing fumes. That the Saddam Hussein regime had and continues to have stockpiles of chemical weapons is not in dispute - but in what circumstances might they have been released? Saddam's capacity to poison and kill the people of Iraq is attested. That Iraqis in the Basra area might have been the victims of a Saddam accident is entirely plausible. There is, after all, no Iraqi press to blow the whistle, no Iraqi opposition worth the name to publicise a cause. As for the current medical condition of those people in Basra hospitals, they are - evidently - the victims of the application to Iraq of economic sanctions, depriving the country of the wherewithal to import drugs and equipment. It would be hard to resist any bid to lighten the burden sanctions impose on Iraqis if - it is a big, big "if" - Saddam were to comply with the conditions for weapons inspections agreed with Kofi Annan last week.

But what if those southern Iraqi cancers were the unacknowledged result of the use by the Americans and their allies (including the British) of carcinogen weapons, that is to say depleted uranium shells or even chemicals? Gulf war syndrome exists among veterans of the conflict. They have a right to know whether they were harmed by the deployment of special weapons by their own side or by some accident involving such weapons. Robert Fisk's discovery is an important piece of evidence. It needs analysis - and answer - in Baghdad, Washington and London. Some of the energy the UN investigators are putting into detecting biological and chemical weapons now could be channelled into finding out exactly how they might have been used then.