Britain was so concerned about reports from Iraq of an alarming increase in the number of babies being born with deformities that ministers asked the Red Cross to investigate the claims, it has emerged. The Government took the action last year amid allegations that weapons used by American and British forces in Iraq were linked to a rise in foetal abnormalities seven years after the invasion.
A letter seen by The Independent, and written by the international development minister, Gareth Thomas, reveals that the Government contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross sometime before September last year.
Mr Thomas wrote to Clare Short, who resigned from the Government in protest over the war, in answer to questions she had posed on behalf of a constituent.
"On DfID's request," said Mr Thomas, "the ICRC has discussed this [reports of a rise in foetal abnormalities] with the technical director of Al-Fallujah General Hospital as well as another doctor based there. Both responded that although there were occasional cases of foetal abnormalities, these did not exceed two to three cases per year."
In another letter written in January this year Mr Thomas said that because of the continuing dearth of reliable information on such cases, DfID had formally asked the Iraqi Ministry of Health to release any data regarding the claims.
Allegations that the British Government was complicit in the use of chemical weapons linked to an upsurge in child deformity cases in Iraq are being investigated by the Ministry of Defence.
The legal case, which is being prepared for the High Court by Public Interest Lawyers, specifically raises serious questions about the UK's role in the American-led offensive against the City of Fallujah in the autumn of 2004 in which hundreds of Iraqis died.
After the battle, in which it is alleged that a range of illegal weaponry was used against the civilian and insurgent population, evidence has emerged of large numbers of children being born with severe birth defects. Iraqi families who believe their children's deformities are caused by the deployment of the weapons have begun legal proceedings against the UK Government.
They accuse the UK Government of breaching international law, war crimes and failing to intervene to prevent a war crime.
Lawyers for the Iraqis have sent a letter before action to the Ministry of Defence asking the Government to disclose what it knows about the Army's role in the offensive, the presence of prohibited weapons and the legal advice given to the then prime minister, Tony Blair.
Last month the World Health Organisation said it was investigating evidence of a worrying rise in the incidence of birth defects in the city which Iraqi doctors attribute to the use of chemical weapons in the battle.
Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, said: "The Government at all levels have deliberately buried their head in the sand on this. Having aided and assisted the US in indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Fallujah using illegal weapon systems, this letter shows it is hiding behind weasel words that Fallujah General Hospital 'could not confirm a rise in [foetal] abnormalities'. This letter shows it knew full well there was a major problem in September 2009."
Mazin Younis, a UK-based Iraqi human rights activist, said: "When I visited Fallujah weeks before the attack, I was shocked to see the majority of people had not left the city. The unlawful use of white phosphorus as a weapon in built-up areas was shown by media in the first days of war, but was never objected to by our British government who assisted in the attack on Fallujah."
A government spokesman yesterday confirmed that the letters had been written.
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