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Iraq: Dutch Concerned About Depleted Uranium Ammo As Troops Deploy

A contingent of Dutch soldiers is currently deploying to the Iraqi city of Al-Samawah as part of the U.S.-led multinational stabilization force. But the location of their base is causing concern in the Netherlands. Some Dutch lawmakers are questioning whether U.S. troops used depleted uranium ammunition in the city during their invasion of Iraq in March.

Prague, 8 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dutch parliamentarians are questioning the accuracy of U.S. intelligence provided to the Dutch government ahead of its decision to send 1,100 soldiers to Iraq as part of a U.S.-led multinational security force.

Hundreds of Dutch soldiers are crossing from Kuwait into Iraq this month to take up positions in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Samawah and the surrounding province of Al-Muthanna.

But there are concerns in the Netherlands about health risks posed by depleted uranium (DU) ammunition that may have been fired by U.S. soldiers during their advance on Baghdad in the early days of the war.

Bert Koenders, the foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Dutch Labor Party, was among the deputies who voted in June in favor of the deployments to Iraq.

But Koenders notes that his party approved the move only after the Dutch government said the United States reported no DU ammunition was used at Al-Samawah during the invasion of Iraq.

"There was a question raised by the parliament on this issue -- what would be the exact status of the depleted uranium in the area our troops will go to. The government has answered [on the basis of information from the United States] that there might be something. But it's all from the 1991 war. [But new information is emerging that suggests] it is also quite likely there has been use of antitank ammunition with depleted uranium in the [most recent] war. I [am raising] that in parliament to find out if we were misinformed and, if so, how that is possible."

The U.S. State Department, which normally would be involved in such information exchanges with another government, offered no immediate comment on whether it had provided information to the Dutch.

Officials at the U.S. military's Central Command said it did not give the information to the Dutch. But those officials said they could not be sure whether officials in the Pentagon or the State Department had done so. Pentagon officials refused to comment on the issue.

DU ammunition is a powerful and effective antitank weapon. A single DU bullet can penetrate both the front and back armor of the most powerful Soviet-era tank -- the T-72 -- igniting the ammunition stored inside and causing the tank to explode in seconds.

The controversy about DU ammunition centers on its long-term effects on health and the environment after a battle is over.

The inhalation of dust containing depleted uranium particles has been reported as a possible cause of higher leukemia and cancer rates in places like Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where it was used by NATO forces. It also has been suggested as a possible cause of the so-called Gulf War Syndrome suffered by U.S. soldiers who fought in the 1991 Gulf War.

But both the U.S. government and the NATO alliance deny there is a connection. They cite scientific and medical research -- including work by the World Health Organization -- that says a link between DU ammunition and the reported illnesses is extremely unlikely.

The U.K. has admitted that British Challenger tanks expended some 1.9 tons of DU ammunition during major combat operations in Iraq this year.

The United States has refused to disclose information about whether it used DU during this year's campaign. It also is refusing to allow a team from the United Nations Environmental Program to study the environmental impact of DU contamination in Iraq.

In the Netherlands, the controversy is not about whether the U.S. used DU ammunition, or how much. Rather, it is focused specifically on the U.S. claim that DU ammunition was definitely not used in Al-Samawah, where the Dutch troops are being posted.

Fueling the controversy is a diary-like letter sent from Iraq in April by American soldier Ed Pennell to his family in the U.S. The letter gained attention after his family posted the letter to the Internet website of their local church.

Pennell -- who was serving with 41st Infantry Regiment -- wrote in the letter that his Bradley crew did fire DU ammunition at Al-Samawah after arriving there on 29 March.

The letter also says it was "standard operating procedure" for Pennell's crew to mix DU rounds with high-explosive ammunition fired from the Bradley's 25-millimeter chain gun.

In an entry dated 30 March, Pennell wrote: "We fire five rounds. The first round is depleted uranium due to standard operating procedures. DU is designed to penetrate enemy armor. And it zips between two enemy soldiers 300 meters away. The next four rounds are high explosive and one round actually hits an enemy. The results were...very graphic."

Kimo Dwee van Gaag, a producer and researcher for Dutch TV2, says Pennell's letter has raised concern among groups like the United Federation of Military Personnel (AFMP).

That group, a kind of labor union for Dutch military personnel, fears that its members might be at risk of contracting cancer or other diseases because of exposure to DU ammunition. Van Gaag reports that the AFMP is taking steps to prevent the Dutch government from denying that any sickness the Dutch soldiers develop in the future is linked to their deployment to Al-Samawah.

"The military unions here are asking the parliament and the government to take blood and urine samples from soldiers who are going there. So if they are going to get sick because of the depleted uranium, they have already the blood and urine samples [from before they would have been exposed]."

Some Dutch researchers have argued that DU ammunition was likely used not only in Al-Basrah -- where British troops were based -- but also in Al-Nasiriya, Al-Najaf and Karbala. They say it is therefore reasonable to believe that it was used in Al-Samawah as well.

An RFE/RL correspondent who was embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division witnessed several days of fighting at Al-Samawah, from 24-27 March. He reports there are differences in the fighting in Al-Samawah that suggest less, if any, DU ammunition may have been used there than in other cities.

First, Al-Samawah lies between the two main prongs of the U.S. advance on Baghdad. Only one of the three brigade-size combat teams in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division passed through Al-Samawah.

Second, those U.S. troops that did fight at Al-Samawah did not battle against Iraqi tanks or armored personnel carriers from the Republican Guard or even Iraq's regular army. Iraqi fighters there were mostly Saddam's Fedayheen commandos or local Ba'ath Party loyalists who used Nissan pickup trucks for transport.

Finally, the dust storms that shrouded much of the Persian Gulf in late March kept America's A-10 antitank attack planes from flying missions or using their DU ammunition during the most critical days in the battle for Al-Samawah.

The dust storms also kept many ground troops from using their DU ammunition. During two days of fighting, for example, the dust was so thick that the number of combat missions was kept to a minimum. Soldiers reported being unable to fire their guns because dust had clogged their weapons.

Sergeant 1st Class Jeff States, leader of a platoon with four mortar carriers that fired at Al-Samawah, told RFE/RL that his vehicles were not using DU ammunition.

But the U.S. troops did have their own concerns about DU ammunition. During the dust storms of late March, an American officer expressed worry that the thick, reddish-orange dust was increasing the risk of inhaling any airborne DU particles or other toxins.

He told RFE/RL: "Look at that air. Who knows what we're breathing in with that dust? Years from now, when we all get sick with Gulf War Syndrome and the government tells us it has nothing to do with being in Iraq, you have to remember storms like this."