There was this article in The Independent newspaper last week concerning a report that has confirmed what plenty of people long suspected: in the wake of the 2004 Battle of Fallujah birth defects, infant mortality, and cancer have skyrocketed in the city. From what I can tell, this report received absolutely no coverage in the mainstream American press (and only scant attention in the international press).

Some of what is described in The Independent is pretty horrific: paralysis of the lower limbs; a girl born with two heads; an infant mortality rate eight times the rate of neighbouring Kuwait; a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer; a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer; an 18 per cent drop in male births; and a 38-fold increase in leukemia (which is almost double the 17-fold increase experienced in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb).

The main culprit for all of this? The Independent points the finger at white phosphorous, a chemical agent meant to be used as a smokescreen for camouflaging troop movements, but which can be lethal if it comes into contact with skin. The US initially denied using white phosphorous in Fallujah until it was forced to┬áback peddle when bloggers noted that the Army’s own Field Artillery Magazine mentioned its use in the battle (smart one, guys). Not surprisingly, the military denies using it against civilians, but there is plenty of evidence to show otherwise, particularly from the RAI documentary Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre. White phosphorous is a chemical weapon that, in so many words, causes people to burn to death. So long as it is exposed to oxygen, it will burn anything it comes into contact with, including flesh and bone. If the burning itself doesn’t prove fatal, then the massive organ failure that results when it gets into the blood stream probably will. Under international law, however, it is only banned if the intent is to use it as a weapon against humans rather than for camouflage purposes, which is why the US is insistent that it never targeted civilians. But there’s a problem here: phosphorous is, essentially, smoke. It doesn’t matter one bit where one “intends” it to go, phosphorous blows around and covers a fairly large, amorphous area and anybody who happens to be stuck in that area (like, say, the people of Fallujah) will be exposed to its effects. Thus, any claim by the military that it did not target civilians is at best deceitful. Any use of white phosphorous in a populated, urban area is, by the very nature of the weapon, a targeting of civilians and needs to be seen that way.

There’s another suspect behind Fallujah’s current crisis, however, that is not mentioned in The Independent article, which is the use of depleted uranium (DU) bullets. Because of their comparatively superior armor penetrative capabilities, DU bullets are the ammunition of choice for the US military in Iraq. In three weeks alone, during the start of the war in 2003, between 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium were spread over Iraq in the form of ammunitions, a number that has undoubtedly ballooned since then. DU is a radioactive material and a known carcinogen. As the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) says, “Repeated cellular and animal studies have shown that uranium is a kidney toxin, neurotoxin, immunotoxin, mutagen, carcinogen and teratogen.” So how likely is it that DU is responsible for Fallujah’s current woes? To my knowledge, there have been no reliable estimates of how much DU may be scattered throughout Fallujah, but as the ICBUW says: “It is thought that DU is the cause of a sharp increase in the incidence rates of some cancers, such as breast cancer and lymphoma, in areas of Iraq following 1991 and 2003. It has also been implicated in a rise in birth defects from areas adjacent to the main Gulf War battlefields.” So it seems pretty likely that a mass of radioactive material dumped on a city may have something to do with that city’s soaring cancer and birth defect rates. But that’s just a hunch.

Whether the culprit is white phosphorous or depleted uranium, we should not have to wait for a verdict in this one case to realize that both of these weapons deserve to be banned. With either weapon, the evidence is clear that those who suffer the most from their use are not soldiers and insurgents, but civilians. The price Iraqis have paid and are currently paying because of the US military’s insistence on its right to use these weapons is, at best, a humanitarian disaster and, at worst, a war crime.