Aftermath: Cleaning Up the Mess

When the Bush administration totals up the cost of the Iraq War it had best be prepared to tack on billions more to clean up the toxic residue of how this country wages war, specifically its widespread use of cluster weapons and Depleted Uranium (DU). While the shooting has wound down, the consequences of using these controversial weapons will be around for a long time to come, with clusters taking a steady toll on the unwary and the young, and DU poisoning the air and water.

Cluster munitions–bombs, shells, and rockets that release highly explosive canisters that shred everything from people to tanks–have been an environmental nightmare since the war in Southeast Asia. Of the 90 million cluster munitions dropped on tiny Laos from 1964 to 1973, 30% failed to explode. The result is a national minefield that has killed and maimed more than 12,000 people and which continues to exact an annual toll of 100 to 200. In one 20 square kilometer area, the British Mines Advisory Group, the world’s leading bomb clearing organization, recently found 376,000 unexploded weapons, the vast majority of them cluster munitions. More than 50 million clusters were used in the 1991 Gulf War. In the two years following the war, they killed 1,400 Kuwaiti civilians and, as late as last year, 200 cluster weapons were found there each month.

According to Colin King, the author of Jane’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal Guide and a disposal expert in Gulf War I, clusters caused “massive problems” in Kosovo, the Gulf, and Afghanistan, and they are “going to cause massive problems in the Gulf again.” The most notorious cluster is the Vietnam era “Rockeye,” the CBU-99, armed with MK-118 bomblets, which have a failure rate as high as 30%. A U.S. company hired to clear cluster weapons from Kuwait found 95,700 unexploded MK-118 submunitions in one small area. More recent cluster weapons, like the CBU-103, 104, 105, and AGM-154 A and B, have better track records, but even these can fail anywhere from 5 – 23% of the time. Children are particularly in danger because some of the canisters are yellow, like the American emergency food packs.

The Ubiquity and Illegality of Depleted Uranium

Depleted Uranium is ubiquitous on any recent American battlefield. The U.S. used 320 tons of it during the first Gulf War, and 10 tons of it in Kosovo. Its resistance to enemy projectiles and its ability to turn hardened armor into margarine gives the U.S. an enormous advantage over any opponent who lacks it. It is, however, illegal. In August of last year, a United Nations subcommittee found that the use of DU violated seven international agreements, including the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. Used in 120 mm tank shells and 30 mm cannon ammunition, DU has an ignition threshold of 1132°C, one-third that of tungsten. It can punch through four inches of steel, roasting the inside of tanks and armored vehicles with a 10,000°C fireball.

Anywhere from 30% to 70% of DU turns into tiny dust particles, which may travel as far as 40 kilometers. DU is not very radioactive–about the same as naturally occurring uranium–but if ingested, according to the U.S. Environmental Policy Institute, it “has the potential to generate significant medical consequences.” DU has long been a suspect in Gulf War Syndrome, the melange of physical woes afflicting up to 30% of the veterans from the 1991 conflict. The Department of Defense doesn’t consider low-level radiation a threat, but a recent study by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute may force a reevaluation of that conclusion. “People have always assumed low doses are not much of a problem,” Alexandra Miller of the Institute told The Guardian (British), “but they can cause more damage than people think.” The study indicates that DU damages bone marrow chromosomes.

The effects of low-level radiation are hard to track, because many “solid” cancers don’t show up for 16 to 24 years. However, Iraqi medical authorities claim the cancer rate in the Basra area has jumped ten-fold. The area was saturated with DU during the 1991 war. Besides being radioactive, DU is also a toxic metal that can damage kidneys and livers. Another worry are DU “misses,” where the enormous weight and speed of DUs drive them as deep as 24 inches into the ground. “A major concern of the potential environmental effects by intact [DU] penetrators or large penetrator fragments,” notes the World Health Organization, “is the potential contamination of ground water after weathering.” Cluster bomb and DU cleanup is likely to be enormously expensive, and who pays for it will be a major question.

Who Will Pay for the Clean Up?

The Bush administration is depending on Iraqi oil sales to foot most of the bill. But the figures don’t add up. At most, Iraqi oil could bring in $18 billion a year, barely enough to feed the 60% of the population dependent on food handouts. Nor does this even address rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, ravaged by 12 years of sanctions and the recent war, a price tag that, according to PFC Energy, a Washington consulting firm, will probably run in excess of $300 billion.

Iraq also has a debt burden that may be as high as $383 billion, and no one seems to be stepping forward to write it off. Indeed, the Financial Times called Deputy of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s call for debt cancellation, “mischievous.” As Russian Vice Premier and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin pointed out, no one forgave his country’s enormous debts.

Unlike in Gulf War I, where the allies picked up most the tab, the Bush administration’s “Coalition of the Willing” is flat broke, and the White House has only allotted $2.4 billion to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. On top of that, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have been hesitant to step in without United Nations authority.

In part, the IMF is nervous about getting into the business of cleaning up after the American military. “I don’t see that for the long-term future you can keep together a world of peace and prosperity just based on military might,” IMF Managing Director Horst Köhler told the Financial Times.