1991's Persian Gulf war still claiming victims Cancer, particularly in children, is up near scene of fighting

March 08, 1998|By Robert Fisk

Seven years after the end of the Persian Gulf war, a nightmare "epidemic" of leukemia and stomach cancer is claiming the lives of thousands of Iraqi civilians who live near the former war zone, ++ including children so young that they were not even born when hostilities ended.

Iraqi doctors in the southern city of Basra have recorded a fourfold increase in cancer -- especially among young children -- since 1991.

Doctors fear that farms that produce most of the city's food have been contaminated by depleted uranium shells used by the United States and its allies during the last tank battles of the war.

But some Iraqis suspect that U.S. and British bombing of President Saddam Hussein's chemical warfare factories may be to blame -- or that U.S. aircraft may themselves have used some form of chemicals in their attacks.

The mother of Ali Hillal, an 8-year-old bald from chemotherapy who lay dying in al-Mansur hospital in Baghdad recently, said that after allied aircraft had bombed a broadcasting station near their home in Diala in 1991, she smelled "a burning, choking smell, something like insecticide."

Two doctors interviewed by the Independent believe that the fumes from burning oil refineries may have contained cancer-causing carcinogens. Another spoke of "radiation" from bombs.

Even child cancer patients who might survive, however, are in some cases dying for lack of vital medicines. At al-Mansur hospital, I was told of the desperate need for medications for leukemia patients -- some children are receiving the leftover medicines of infants who have died.

Five-year-old Latif Abdul Sattar from Babylon, also bald from chemotherapy, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma three months ago but has been given only a 60 percent chance of survival because he is being treated with a substitute for a needed drug.

Dr. Jawad Khadim al-Ali, a member of Britain's Royal College of Physicians who is a cancer specialist at Basra's largest hospital, said that in 1997 he treated 380 cancer patients in his clinic -- compared to scarcely 80 a year before 1991. Most child leukemia patients are transferred to al-Mansur hospital, where doctors told the Independent that they were facing a "dramatic increase" in child cancer.

"Almost all the cases are from the south -- from Basra, Nasiriya, Kerbala and Najaf," said Dr. Ali Ismail, resident doctor in the hospital's leukemia ward.

In a country disintegrating under sanctions -- most Iraqi cities function in virtual isolation amid tracts of territory tenuously held by troops and militiamen -- there are no government statistics on the startling increase in cancer reported by doctors.

Perhaps fearing that cities may have been polluted by biochemical warfare products from bombed factories, the Iraqi Health Ministry has made no effort to publicize the tragedy. And since most of the victims are Shiites -- the Muslim sect which rebelled against Hussein's rule after the war -- there is little incentive for the Iraqi regime to care.

Western aid agencies -- acknowledging reports of the increase in cancer cases -- have made not the slightest attempt to investigate the causes; an official of the World Health Organization in Baghdad admitted that he had heard of the escalation in cancer deaths but doubted the extent of the increase and, incredibly, promised to investigate only "if asked to do so" by the Iraqis.

In his hospital oncology department, Dr. al-Ali has pinned to the wall a set of maps of Basra governorate and the city of An Nasiriya, showing that most new cancer cases come from areas immediately to the east of the tank battles between U.S. and Iraqi forces in February 1991.

A mass of black and red dots, representing 765 cancer patients being treated in Basra in 1997, are all situated just to the east of the stretch of fertile land which formed one of the last battlefields of the gulf war between Iraqi Republican Guard units and the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division -- and on which tomatoes, onions, potatoes and livestock are farmed today.

"The battles were so close that we could see all the fires from the top of the buildings here in Basra," al-Ali said. "There are canals as well as farms throughout this area. There are rivers. And always the wind comes from the west, towards Basra. We do not know what lies in the soil of those farms today."

When al-Ali finished showing me his wall of maps, we walked into the hallway outside to find a mass of young women and several old men waiting to see him, all of whom had developed cancer in the past five years.

A woman with a crutch had a bone tumor in her thigh. A young woman in a black chador -- a nonsmoker with no family history of cancer -- was suffering from lung cancer; a woman of 51, a schoolteacher and mother of five, pulled open her blouse to reveal a missing right breast.

"I have breast cancer," she sobbed. "Four years ago, they removed my breast. Then I had a reoccurrence on my neck. Now I have pain in both places."

Privately, doctors say most of their patients are likely to die.

"Leukemia and blood illnesses have increased dramatically in the past few years," Dr. Yassir Raouf, chief resident doctor at al-Mansur hospital, said. "If the drugs are available, we can treat the patient for two or three years. But if the treatment is interrupted through lack of drugs, the patient relapses."

Dr. Ismail said that cancer appears to be moving north from the south of Iraq. "I think it's mainly caused by radiation, but also by chemicals in the air, and water pollution and the poor quality of food," he said.

"The percentage of radiation in the air increased after the war. Cancer isn't contagious -- but it's moving as if it was an infectious disease."

Robert Fisk is a reporter for the Independent in London.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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