The catastrophe Blair, Clinton and Saddam have in common

UN inspectors should be looking at Saddam's cancer wards as well as his palaces
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The Independent Online
SOMETHING terrible happened towards the end of the 1991 Gulf War. While we were congratulating ourselves that the Iraqi army had been driven out of Kuwait and Saddam Hussein had been (supposedly) "defanged", an unknown chemical plague spread across southern Mesopotamia. It was to cripple British and American soldiers, along with untold thousands of Iraqis, some of them children as yet unborn. In the years to come - when it began to afflict our own veterans - we called it "Gulf War Syndrome".

So did the Americans. As for the Iraqis, they remained silent for years - even as their own people began to fall victim to unexplained cancers around the former battlefields. Even now, Saddam Hussein's regime has made not a single statement about the epidemic of cancers afflicting the largely Shiite Muslim population. Here, then, is something which President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair and Saddam Hussein have in common: a total failure to explain the calamity afflicting thousands of their people after the 1991 conflict.

Nor can there be any doubt that Americans, British and Iraqis are suffering from the same affliction. As I was touring the cancer wards of Basra and Baghdad last week, looking at the men and women and especially children who are dying of lymphatic cancers - the cause of which, Iraqi doctors said, was use by the Allies of depleted uranium shells - Tony Flint, the acting chairman of the British Gulf Veterans' and Families' Association, was warning that the very same shells could be responsible for cancers that have killed at least 30 British veterans. Just one day later, the American National Gulf Resource Centre, representing a coalition of US veterans groups, announced that as many as 40,000 American servicemen may have been exposed to depleted uranium dust on the 1991 battlefields.

The kidney problems, respiratory failures and cancers now being diagnosed among Allied veterans appear to be identical to those afflicting Iraqis. In most cases, the Iraqi victims were diagnosed only years later - just as Gulf War Syndrome was only grudgingly acknowledged in London and Washington, long after Allied troops had returned home. I first heard of these symptoms among Iraqis last year, when an Iraqi opposition leader in Damascus - a Shiite cleric who knew former Iraqi troops seeking refuge in southern Iran following the 1991 war - told me that many of these ex-soldiers had fallen ill. Most had fought in the tank battles south-west of Basra; their armour was being bombarded with depleted uranium shells by the US First Infantry Division. American troops were exposed to the same dust when they moved forward after the battles and helped to destroy the contaminated wreckage of the Iraqi armoured units.

In southern Iraq, the battlefields west of Basra include some of the city's best farmland; its inhabitants continue to eat tomatoes, onions, potatoes and meat from fields that were almost certainly drenched in uranium dust. The same toxic residues must have drained into the rivers and sewers of Basra, polluting even further the city's water supplies. This, at least, is the opinion of Basra's cancer surgeons. The implication is terrifying: for the first time since the bombing of Hiroshima, cancer has been linked to warfare.

No wonder, then, that no one really wants to find out the cause of this sickness. The American veterans' groups have accused the US Defence Department of "a deliberate attempt to avoid responsibility for consciously allowing the widespread exposure of hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women". The Ministry of Defence in London, investigating depleted uranium as part of a Gulf War Syndrome inquiry, still claims that there is no evidence of the metal being responsible for any abnormal diseases.

Western aid agencies inside Iraq are equally cavalier. UNICEF has sought no details of child cancer deaths linked to the war - though it admits to hearing of the reports. Even more shameful is our own failure - that of the UN and all those involved in sanctions imposition - to provide enough of the medicines that could cure Iraqi child leukemia victims who are otherwise going to die. To deny the existence of Gulf War Syndrome may be sin enough. To deny medicine to its Iraqi civilian victims is shameful.

There is an obvious response to this. Why should we - the British, the Americans, the West - do anything when we do not know for sure what is blighting the people of southern Iraq, as well as our own military veterans? Saddam is to blame - write that out 100 times. But there is an equally obvious retort: open a UN investigation into the pestilence that is sweeping through those who fought in 1991 and those who live there now but who were unborn at the time. UN inspectors inside Iraq can paw through the palaces and offices of the highest Iraqi officials in their hunt for evidence of bio-chemical warfare. So why cannot the UN carry out an equally intrusive - equally humanitarian - inquiry into the cancers, kidney failures and deaths that accompanied the creation of the New World Order?

As Robert Fisk's article makes clear, innocent children are dying of cancer because of weapons used during a war before some of them had even been born. The Independent has linked with Care International and Medical Aid for Iraqi Children, which are already doing much to relieve poverty and sickness in Iraq, to bring relief to these helpless victims of war. We will work closely with them to ensure that your money helps bring medicines to the children who most need them.

Please send cheques, made out to The Independent Iraq Appeal, to PO Box No 6870, London E14 5BT.