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US Military Lied, Then Admitted Using Depleted Uranium Weapons in Syria

A US Air Force A-10 fires its 30mm gatling gun during a training exercise.

After initially promising not to use depleted uranium munitions against targets in Syria, the Pentagon has admitted thousands of DU rounds were fired by US warplanes against Islamic State oil transport convoys on two separate occasions in late 2015.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Maj. Josh Jacques told the monitor group Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30 mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 attack planes on November 16 and November 25, part of an attack that destroyed some 350 vehicles, including tanker trucks carrying oil for Islamic State (IS), in the eastern Syrian desert.

Foreign Policy reporter Samuel Oakford first reported on the US military’s possible use of DU rounds in Syria in IRIN News last October. CENTCOM and the US Air Force initially denied the allegations, then issued conflicting accounts of events before acknowledging using DU against IS. “U.S. and coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve,” Coalition spokesman John Moore said in March 2015.

However, Maj. Jacques said on Thursday that US forces used a “combat mix” of armor-piercing DU and explosive incendiary rounds “to ensure a higher probability of destruction of the truck fleet ISIS was using to transport its illicit oil.” It is uncertain why US military commanders felt they needed to utilize DU, which is typically used to penetrate heavily-armored targets, but Jacques said the Pentagon “will continue to look at all options during operational planning to defeat ISIS, this includes DU rounds.”

The Pentagon’s admission marks the first time the use of DU weapons has been confirmed since the 2003-2011 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. US forces relied heavily upon DU munitions during the battle for Fallujah and elsewhere. Fired from tanks, planes, helicopters, in artillery shells and from guns, these radioactive rounds are extremely dense and ideal for piercing hardened armor. But when the shells explode on impact they release deadly dust particles that linger in the soil, water, food and air for many years.

While the Pentagon publicly states that DU is not known to cause any harm, an Army training manual warns that “contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption” and requires soldiers coming within 80 feet (25 meters) of DU-contaminated material to wear protective clothing. American military vehicles hit with DU “friendly fire” were buried in the Arabian desert after Operation Desert Storm, yet children are allowed to climb and play on the burnt-out hulks of Iraqi tanks blasted by DU rounds. Geiger counter readings of DU-contaminated sites in densely populated urban areas have consistently shown radiation levels that are 1,000 to 1,900 times higher than normal.

The US military’s use of DU has been linked to a dramatic increase in birth defects and miscarriages among babies and women living in parts of Iraq that were heavily exposed to toxic metals, including depleted uranium, during the US-led invasion and occupation. A 2012 study published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found “compelling evidence” linking the soaring numbers of birth defects and miscarriages to US and allied bombing and battles. Of the babies studied by the researchers in Fallujah, more than half of those born between 2007 and 2010 had birth defects. Before the US assaults on Fallujah in 2004, that figure had been around 10 percent. Prior to 2000, fewer than 2 percent of Fallujah’s babies were born with deformities. Among the pregnant woman surveyed in the study, more than 45 percent experienced miscarriages in the two-year period following the US assaults on the Fallujah. By contrast, around 10 percent of the city’s pregnant women miscarried prior to the US attack. The study’s authors found a similar rise in birth defects and miscarriages in the southern city of Basra, where British forces, who also used DU, invaded in 2003.

According to a University of Southern Maine study published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, “DU damages DNA in human lung cells… and caused breaks in the chromosomes within cells and stopped them from growing and dividing healthily.”

“These data suggest that exposure to particulate DU may pose a significant [DNA damage] risk and could possibly result in lung cancer,” the USM research team wrote.

The use of DU rounds by the US-led NATO coalition waging the 1999 air war against Serbians in Yugoslavia and Kosovo is also believed to have caused a surge in leukemia in the region — both among the local population and foreign troops deployed there —  although there hasn’t yet been a widely-accepted study proving a link between depleted uranium and cancer. British biologist Roger Coghill warned during the Kosovo air campaign that the use of DU would cause thousands of cancer deaths.

Sick veterans from the United States and other nations whose troops fought in two Iraq wars have long claimed their illnesses were caused by DU. The munitions have been suspected, but never proved, to be a possible cause of the “Gulf War Syndrome” illnesses suffered by veterans of the 1991 US-led war in Iraq. Coghill said “the total evidence is strong that DU is behind Gulf War Syndrome, and the increased rates of disease in Iraq and in Bosnia,” where DU weapons were used in 1995. “The birth deformities seen in the Gulf are identical to those seen in Bosnia, and in the children of some US service personnel who were exposed to DU,” Coghill told BBC News in 1999.

Many troops suffering from mysterious illnesses after the second Iraq war also blame DU. However, the Pentagon claims it has found “no clinically significant” health effects from depleted uranium exposure in test subjects. Last year, however, the United Nations General Assembly voted 151-4 — with only the US, Britain France and Israel objecting — to recognize continuing concerns about the health risks associated with exposure to DU. A previous UN report on DU noted the Iraqi government’s “deep concern over the harmful effects” of the radioactive weapon, stating DU “constitutes a danger to human beings and the environment.”

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