News from Iraq: Research links rise in Falluja birth defects and cancers to US assault
- Research links rise in Falluja birth defects and cancers to US assault
• Defects in newborns 11 times higher than normal
• 'War contaminants' from 2004 attack could be cause
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 30 December 2010 21.34 GMT
A study examining the causes of a dramatic spike in birth defects in the Iraqi city of Falluja has for the first time concluded that genetic damage could have been caused by weaponry used in US assaults that took place six years ago.
The research, which will be published next week, confirms earlier estimates revealed by the Guardian of a major, unexplained rise in cancers and chronic neural-tube, cardiac and skeletal defects in newborns. The authors found that malformations are close to 11 times higher than normal rates, and rose to unprecedented levels in the first half of this year – a period that had not been surveyed in earlier reports.
The findings, which will be published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, come prior to a much-anticipated World Health Organisation study of Falluja's genetic health. They follow two alarming earlier studies, one of which found a distortion in the sex ratio of newborns since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a 15% drop in births of boys.
"We suspect that the population is chronically exposed to an environmental agent," said one of the report's authors, environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani. "We don't know what that environmental factor is, but we are doing more tests to find out."
The report identifies metals as potential contaminating agents afflicting the city – especially among pregnant mothers. "Metals are involved in regulating genome stability," it says. "As environmental effectors, metals are potentially good candidates to cause birth defects.
The findings are likely to prompt further speculation that the defects were caused by depleted uranium rounds, which were heavily used in two large battles in the city in April and November 2004. The rounds, which contain ionising radiation, are a core component of the armouries of numerous militaries and militias.
Their effects have long been called into question, with some scientists claiming they leave behind a toxic residue, caused when the round – either from an assault rifle or artillery piece – bursts through its target. However, no evidence has yet been established that proves this, and some researchers instead claim that depleted uranium has been demonstrably proven not to be a contaminant.
The report acknowledges that other battlefield residues may also be responsible for the defects. "Many known war contaminants have the potential to interfere with normal embryonic and foetal development," the report says. "The devastating effect of dioxins on the reproductive health of the Vietnamese people is well-known."
The latest Falluja study surveyed 55 families with seriously deformed newborns between May and August. It was conducted by Dr Samira Abdul Ghani, a paediatrician at Falluja general hospital. In May, 15% of the 547 babies born had serious birth defects. In the same period, 11% of babies were born at less than 30 weeks and 14% of foetuses spontaneously aborted.
The researchers believe that the figures understate what they describe as an epidemic of abnormalities, because a large number of babies in Falluja are born at home with parents reluctant to seek help from authorities.
One case documented in the report is of a mother and her daughter who after the 2004 battles both gave birth to babies with severe malformations. The second wife of one of the fathers also had a severely deformed baby in 2009.
"It is important to understand that under normal conditions, the chances of such occurrences is virtually zero," said Savabieasfahani.
Iraq's government has built a new hospital in Fallujah, but the city's obstetricians have complained that they are still overwhelmed by the sheer number of serious defects. The US military has long denied that it is responsible for any contaminant left behind in the city, or elsewhere in Iraq, as it continues its steady departure from the country it has occupied for almost eight years.
It has said that Iraqis who want to file a complaint are welcome to do so. Several families interviewed by the Guardian in November 2009 said they had filed complaints but had not received replies.
The World Health Organisation is due to begin its research sometime next year. However, there are fears that an extensive survey may not be possible in the still volatile city that still experiences assassinations and bombings most weeks.
"An epidemic of birth defects is unfolding in Fallujah, Iraq," said Savabieasfahani. "This is a serious public health crisis that needs global attention. We need independent and unbiased research into the possible causes of this epidemic.
We invite scientists and organisations to get in touch with us so that we may gain the strength to address this large global public health issue."
City's spike in deformity rates
Birth-defect rates in Falluja have become increasingly alarming over the past two years. In the first half of 2010, the number of monthly cases of serious abnormalities rose to unprecedented levels. In Falluja general hospital, 15% of the 547 babies born in May had a chronic deformity, such as a neural tune defect – which affects the brain and lower limbs – cardiac, or skeletal abnormalities, or cancers.
No other city in Iraq has anywhere near the same levels of reported abnormalities. Falluja sees at least 11 times as many major defects in newborns than world averages, the research has shown.
The latest report, which will be published next week in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, says Falluja has been infected by a chronic environmental contaminant. It focuses on depleted uranium, used in weaponry during two US assaults in 2004 as a possible cause of the contaminant. Scientific studies have so far established no link between the rounds, which contain ionising radiation to burst through armour and are commonly used on the battlefield.
The study focuses on metals as a potential conduit for the contaminant. It suggests a bodily accumulation of toxins is causing serious and potentially irreversible damage to the city's population base, and calls for an urgent examination of metals in Falluja as well as a comprehensive examination of the city's recent reproductive history.
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The 'Lebanonisation' of Iraq
With a sectarian power-sharing agreement and interfering neighbours, Iraq is looking a lot like Lebanon.
Lamis Andoni Last Modified: 29 Nov 2010 12:19 GMT
The power-sharing framework agreed in Iraq has so far failed to end the eight month deadlock over the structure of a new cabinet. The stalemate, due to haggling over key posts, is reflective of how post-invasion Iraq has succumbed to ethnic and sectarian rivalry, which, in turn, has further obstructed its economic and political recovery. It is also indicative of how the country has become a playground for different regional and international powers who are competing for influence and the country's oil resources.
The agreement reached earlier this month would allow Nuri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, to form a new government - even though the Iraqiya coalition took two more seats than his State of Law alliance in the parliamentary elections.
The accord would establish a Lebanon-style sectarian and ethnic formula - which might prove to be more of a recipe for constant instability than a guarantor of national reconciliation. It is ironic that we are witnessing the 'Lebanonisation' of Iraq at the exact moment when this type of power-sharing formula may be causing the 'Iraqisation' of Lebanon - as many fear that Lebanon is on the verge of inter-sectarian strife.
Lebanon's sectarian power distribution has not saved it from sectarian rivalry but rather repeatedly plunged it into civil violence and even war. Consequently, Lebanon has become hostage to its sectarian system, with all parties - while competing over their share - constantly seeking to retain it for fear of being marginalised.
Iraq's emerging power-sharing system gives the post of president to the Kurds, the post of prime minister to the Shia, while the Sunni gain or are left with (depending on your point of view) the speaker of parliament position and probably also the vice-presidency.
It is unclear how the country's other ethnic groups and sects will react to this, and while they are not powerful enough to impact the political system, their marginalisation could add to the tensions that have been gripping the country.
Just as in Lebanon, Iraq's neighbours have a vested interest in the country adopting such a power-sharing system - provided, of course, that the precise details of it serve their interests.
Iraq's emerging political system is a direct product of the US invasion and Iran's complicity in both the invasion and the ensuing occupation. And Iran has, so far, come out of it with the strongest hand - as the prime minister is the main authoritative power.
Neighbouring 'Sunni' Arab countries have also played a role in consolidating divisions within Iraq - either by directly helping the US forces or by failing to help Iraq maintain its unity. In the deliberations leading up to the framework agreement, Arab countries initially supported the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, partly to boost Sunni representation in the government and to offset Iran's influence.
The US also seemed to favour the leader of the Iraqiya bloc, Iyad Allawi, a Shia politician who failed to secure Iranian backing.
Allawi, who maintains strong ties with the Gulf states and Iraq's Arab neighbours, returned to Iraq after the invasion with the backing of the CIA and the US state department. In 2004, he led a transitional government for less than a year, during which time he supported the American bombings of the Sunni Falluja and Shia Najaf areas. The ruthless shelling of Falluja is remembered as one of the bloodiest episodes of the US occupation, during which human rights groups documented the use of prohibited ammunitions.
Despite this, for Sunni Iraqis Allawi represented the only option that could guarantee the support of the US and Arab states for a coalition that sought to undercut the rule of the Iranian-backed sectarian Shia parties. The Iraqiya coalition won and a US-Syrian understanding guaranteed Damascus' support for Allawi, who also enjoyed the backing of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
But all the talks and mediations finally failed, prompting the Americans to give their support to al-Maliki, providing that Sunnis are also strongly represented in the government.
Thus what started as a possible challenge to an Iranian-backed sectarian Shia government resulted in an Iranian-approved sectarian/ethnic power-sharing system that gives supremacy to ethnic and sectarian divisions over collective identity.
As alarming as the perpetuation of these divisions is the fact that the ongoing power struggle is essentially among ruling elites who have largely been promoted - or even created - by the occupation, while ordinary Iraqis remain excluded. For the most part, these political elites are linked to external parties, particularly Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia.
Now even those who supported the Iraqiya coalition and saw the election results as a triumph over what they viewed as a sectarian project are feeling excluded, as Arab countries deal mainly - and sometimes solely - with 'their man' Allawi and not with the coalition he leads.
Arab countries, just like Iran (but with less success), are treating Iraq as a playground where they vie for influence rather than support an alternative national project.
In Lebanon, external forces have repeatedly intervened to guarantee stability by maintaining the equilibrium of its sectarian system. In Iraq, however, the arrangement is failing from the outset - leading neither to the formation of a new government, nor to a guarantee of temporary political stability.
Furthermore by preventing the winning coalition from forming a government, Iraqi politicians are not only establishing a flawed sectarian system but laying the groundwork for a system of sectarian dominance.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.