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Tuesday, 13 May, 2003, 23:15 GMT 00:15 UK

Congress moves to back tactical nukes

By Steve Schifferes BBC News Online in Washington

Congress moves closer to approving a new generation of small tactical nuclear weapons, despite the warnings of arms control experts.

The US House of Representatives looks set to approve funds for the research and development of a new generation of small tactical nuclear weapons which could be used to attack deep bunkers holding weapons of mass destruction.

The House Armed Services Committee is voting the money as part of the $400bn defence authorisation bill which will be reported out on Tuesday.

Last week, the Senate Armed Services committee approved the money in a closed vote.

The move would overturn a ten-year ban on such developments, and still has to be approved by the full House and Senate.

" We have tried for 50-plus years to make these weapons unthinkable, and now we're talking about giving them a tactical application - it's a dangerous departure. " Democratic Senator Jack Reed

The shift of policy has been sought by the Pentagon since last summer, when it began to develop plans to reshape the US nuclear arsenal to take account of the new doctrine of pre-emption.

Fear of proliferation

Democrats warned that it would make harder to contain the spread of nuclear weapons.

"This is a major shift of policy," said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

'MINI-NUKES' Could strike deep-underground bunker Might be used to destroy chemical or biological weapons Critics doubt weapons could go deep enough to contain fall-out

"It makes a mockery of our argument around the world that other countries - India, Pakistan - should not test and North Korea and Iran should not obtain (nuclear weapons)."

But the chairman of the committee, Republican Senator John Warner, said that it was a prudent step to defend the US against enemies.

"America has had a ban on this research since 1993, yet that has done nothing to stop other countries from seeking to acquire nuclear weapons," he pointed out.

Under the Bush administration, the US has signed a strategic arms-control deal with Russia, but it has abrogated the anti-missile defence treaty and has expressed doubts about the comprehensive test ban treaty.

New nuclear weapons

US strategic planners believes that the new tactical nuclear weapons are essential to meet to threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and says they could be used against chemical or biological weapons facilities and nuclear bunkers buried deep underground.

But arms controls advocates say that the plans could undermine US efforts to limit nuclear proliferation at a time when North Korea, among others, seems intent on developing nuclear weapons.

"We have tried for 50-plus years to make these weapons unthinkable," Democratic Senator Jack Reed said.

"And now we're talking about giving them a tactical application. It's a dangerous departure."

The new weapons under consideration include low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, which yield under five kilotons, less than one-third of the first atomic bomb used at Hiroshima, and a "robust nuclear earth penetrator", designed to bury deep into the ground before exploding.

Potential targets could include North Korea, which is suspected of hiding its nuclear production sites in areas carved out of mountains.

The new earth-penetrating bomb would be based on the one remaining US tactical nuclear weapon, the B61, with a strengthened nose cone to allow it to penetrate frozen soil or rocks.

The even smaller nuclear weapons, with yields of under five kilotons could be used against above-ground weapons production facilities.

They would take longer to develop, and might require underground testing - something that the Congressional committees also authorised.

Range of missilies possessed by India and Pakistan

UN urges action on Iraq pollution Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK

The United Nations says urgent action is needed to tackle an environmental crisis in Iraq worsened by war damage and increased pollution.

A report by the UN's Environment Programme said the water and sewerage systems needed immediate repair and that pollution "hotspots" had to be tackled.

It said rubbish and medical waste had to be removed to reduce the risk of epidemics.

The study, released on Thursday, also suggested scientists carry out a prompt risk assessment of sites struck by depleted-uranium (DU) munitions.

Decades of abuse

Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the study, said: "Many environmental problems in Iraq are so alarming that an immediate assessment and a cleanup plan are needed urgently."

The report said that the 2003 Iraqi conflict had added to environmental stress from the 1991 Gulf War, the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and the mismanagement and abuses of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

It said this year's war had caused:

Accumulated damage to water and sanitation systems, leading to higher levels of pollution and health risks

Continuous electricity cuts, often stopping the pumps that remove sewage and circulate water

Power failures affecting pumps that remove saline water from land in southern Iraq, flooding fields and contaminating them with salt

Smoke from oil well fires and burning oil trenches that added to air pollution and soil contamination

A degrading of the ecosystem because of heavy bombing and the movement of large numbers of vehicles and troops

The report said DU munitions had probably "caused environmental contamination of as-yet unknown levels or consequences".

The Iraqi public should be given advice on how to avoid potential exposure to DU, it said.

The British Government has said it will help to clean up DU in Iraq, but the US has said it has no plans to remove the debris.

The UN report is a "desk study" that provides an overview of the environmental situation in Iraq but is not based on on-site knowledge.

US rejects Iraq DU clean-up Monday, 14 April, 2003, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

The US says it has no plans to remove the debris left over from depleted uranium (DU) weapons it is using in Iraq.

It says no clean-up is needed, because research shows DU has no long-term effects.

It says a 1990 study suggesting health risks to local people and veterans is out of date.

A United Nations study found DU contaminating air and water seven years after it was used.

DU, left over after natural uranium has been enriched, is 1.7 times denser than lead, and very effective for punching through armoured vehicles.

When a weapon with a DU tip or core strikes a solid object, like the side of a tank, it goes straight through before erupting in a burning cloud of vapour. This settles as chemically poisonous and radioactive dust.

Risk studies

Both the US and the UK acknowledge the dust can be dangerous if inhaled, though they say the danger is short-lived, localised, and much more likely to lead to chemical poisoning than to irradiation.

" One thing we've found in these various studies is that there are no long-term effects from DU " Lieutenant-Colonel David Lapan, Pentagon spokesman

But a study prepared for the US Army in July 1990, a month before Iraq invaded Kuwait, says: "The health risks associated with internal and external DU exposure during combat conditions are certainly far less than other combat-related risks.

"Following combat, however, the condition of the battlefield and the long-term health risks to natives and combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of the continued use of DU."

A Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel David Lapan, told BBC News Online: "Since then there've been a number of studies - by the UK's Royal Society and the World Health Organisation, for example - into the health risks of DU, or the lack of them.

"It's fair to say the 1990 study has been overtaken by them. One thing we've found in these various studies is that there are no long-term effects from DU.

"And given that, I don't believe we have any plans for a DU clean-up in Iraq."

Part of the armoury

The UN Environment Programme study, published in March 2003, found DU in air and groundwater in Bosnia-Herzegovina seven years after the weapons were fired.

The UN says the existing data suggest it is "highly unlikely" DU could be linked to any of the health problems reported.

But it recommends collecting DU fragments, covering contaminated points with asphalt or clean soil, and keeping records of contaminated sites.

Reports from Baghdad speak of repeated attacks by US aircraft carrying DU weapons on high-rise buildings in the city centre.

The UK says: "British forces on deployment to the Gulf have DU munitions available as part of their armoury, and will use them if necessary." It will not confirm they have used them.

Many veterans from the Gulf and Kosovo wars believe DU has made them seriously ill.

One UK Gulf veteran is Ray Bristow, a former marathon runner.

In 1999 he told the BBC: "I gradually noticed that every time I went out for a run my distance got shorter and shorter, my recovery time longer and longer.

"Now, on my good days, I get around quite adequately with a walking stick, so long as it's short distances. Any further, and I need to be pushed in a wheelchair."

Ray Bristow was tested in Canada for DU. He is open-minded about its role in his condition.

But he says: "I remained in Saudi Arabia throughout the war. I never once went into Iraq or Kuwait, where these munitions were used.

"But the tests showed, in layman's terms, that I have been exposed to over 100 times an individual's safe annual exposure to depleted uranium."

Iraq fears Allied bombs caused cancer Doctors blame depleted uranium from Allied weapons

By the BBC's Rageh Omaar In southern Iraq Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK

Iraqi doctors claim that the use of weapons containing depleted uranium by British and American forces during the Gulf War is causing an "epidemic of cancer".

Allied forces have admitted using hundreds of tonnes of shells tipped with depleted uranium against Iraqi forces in the south of the country.

But they have denied that the weapons have caused high cancer rates.

Iraqi health officials say the town of Basra has suffered a dramatic rise in cancer and birth defects since 1991.

Every day the anxious faces of children and their parents line the corridors of the cancer wards of the main hospital in Basra, southern Iraq.

Ten-year-old Noor has come for a check-up and her medication.

Tumours are spreading to different parts of her body, she is constantly tired and has had to leave school.

"It's the Gulf War that caused it," her mother says.

"We have no history of cancer in our family. We live in an area that was heavily bombed during the war and my daughter was born a year later."

Doctors say whole areas of southern Iraq have been contaminated.

It is not just Iraqi civilians who feel that they have been infected.

British veterans have the same fears too.

The former battlefields in this area of southern Iraq are littered with the remains of Iraqi tanks destroyed by British and American forces using weapons with depleted uranium.

Rising toll

Eleven years later, doctors in this area say people are continuing to die as a result of the use of those weapons.

Ill-equipped hospitals are having to deal with multiple forms of cancer.

There are numerous cases of four different types within the same family and there is even an increasing number of teenage girls with breast cancer.

Basra Hospital cancer surgeon Jawad al-Ali says: "I had not seen tumours, they're very rare, but now it's what I could call an epidemic of cancer."

The British military is now re-examining the implications of using depleted uranium in future conflicts because of the possible consequences on its own troops.

But many Iraqis say they are already living with those consequences.

Iraq's ward of death Friday, 14 April, 2000, 18:25 GMT 19:25 UK

Doctors gave this boy just a few days to live By Andrew North in Baghdad

The leukaemia ward at the Saddam Central Hospital for Children in Baghdad is a depressing sight.

Many of the children on the ward have lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatment, others are emaciated and barely register the presence of the people around them.

But most depressing of all, the doctors say that none of these children will survive.

"We call this ward the ward of death," said Dr Basim Al Abdili, as he inspects a patient's notes at the end of a bed.

"Every day we lose one patient, maybe more than one patient, just in this ward. The mortality rate for leukaemia and other cancers here in this ward is 100%."

Aid agencies working in Iraq say it is the same story at other hospitals across the country.

UN blamed

Leukaemia, which affects blood and bone marrow, was relatively rare in Iraq before 1990.

But according to the Iraqi Health Ministry, there has been a fourfold increase in the incidence of the disease since then, a figure that is now generally accepted by international agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In the West however, many leukaemia patients can be treated for the disease and survive. Not in Iraq.

Dr Al Abdali blames the UN embargo, which will be 10 years old in August. It holds up supplies of the chemotherapy drugs, he said, meaning that the hospital does not have the right treatments at the right time.

The US and British Governments dispute such claims, arguing that through the UN's oil-for-food programme, under which Iraqi oil sales are used to pay for its humanitarian needs, the country can buy all the drugs it needs. And they accuse the Iraqi Government of failing to distribute drugs and other medical supplies properly around the country.

Equipment shortages prove fatal

But it is not just drug shortages that are a problem, according to doctors at the Saddam hospital.

To have a real chance of tackling many leukaemia cases, they say, they need to carry out bone marrow transplants, but at the moment no hospital in Iraq has the necessary facility.

In fact, the Iraqi Health Ministry has just announced plans to set up a bone marrow transplant centre at Baghdad's Mansour hospital.

But it will depend on the UN sanctions committee allowing the Ministry to import the necessary equipment.

And Khalid Jamil Mohammed Al Hayat, under-secretary at the Health Ministry was not hopeful.

"I expect again the Americans will suspend this equipment," because, he claimed, they are likely to say it could have a dual use, in other words that it could have a military use.

US officials maintain that they have to be careful, because they do not trust the Iraqi Government.

But for the staff on the leukaemia ward at the Saddam Children's hospital, discussions about a bone marrow transplant centre are just that - discussions.

Day to day, they are struggling just to provide basic facilities for their patients, because the hospital is so short of funds.

The leukaemia ward is run-down, with paint peeling off the walls. Children on the ward are not isolated from each other, which means infections spread easily. And doctors admit that parents sometimes carry out basic nursing tasks, because the wards are so short-staffed.

Gulf War link

On one bed was nine-year-old Mohanad Adnan, with his mother Hanna beside him. A large blood blister has developed over his right eye and Dr Al Abdali said he was no longer responding to the chemotherapy treatment they had available.

"We expect the death of this patient in a few days, because of the continuous bleeding."

Speaking through a translator, Hanna said she had no doubt what had caused her son's illness.

"The cause is known, by all people inside and outside Iraq. The cause is the contamination of our land during the war."

She was referring to the belief among many Iraqis that the increased incidence of leukaemia is due to radioactivity released by the depleted uranium (DU) munitions used by US and British forces during the 1991 Gulf War. DU particles are believed to have got into the food chain and the water supply.

In fact, there has yet to be independent confirmation of a definite link between DU munitions and leukaemia. But anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a strong possibility.


Most leukaemia cases are turning up in southern Iraq, where military activity was most intense. The majority of the patients in the leukaemia ward at Saddam Children's hospital are referred from towns in the south.

The WHO's Baghdad representative, Dr Ghulam Popal, said it intends to start work on a detailed study of the issue later this year. But in an interview he said, "I suspect that this depleted uranium is one of the causes of this leukaemia."

In Britain and America, there is widespread suspicion that DU munitions may be among the causes of so-called Gulf War syndrome, the debilitating condition that has afflicted so many Gulf veterans.

When asked about the possibility of a link between DU and leukaemia among Iraqis, an official at the British Foreign Office said: "We are sceptical about Iraqi claims."

But he added: "We would welcome a comprehensive investigation to look into the issue, covering all the possible factors.

"There is a genuine concern over the issue of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq."

Afghans' uranium levels spark alert Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

A small sample of Afghan civilians have shown "astonishing" levels of uranium in their urine, an independent scientist says.

He said they had the same symptoms as some veterans of the 1991 Gulf war.

But he found no trace of the depleted uranium (DU) some scientists believe is implicated in Gulf War syndrome.

Other researchers suggest new types of radioactive weapons may have been used in Afghanistan.

The scientist is Dr Asaf Durakovic, of the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC) based in Washington DC.

Dr Durakovic, a former US army colonel who is now a professor of medicine, said in 2000 he had found "significant" DU levels in two-thirds of the 17 Gulf veterans he had tested.

In May 2002 he sent a team to Afghanistan to interview and examine civilians there.

The UMRC says: "Independent monitoring of the weapon types and delivery systems indicate that radioactive, toxic uranium alloys and hard-target uranium warheads were being used by the coalition forces."

Shock results

It says Nangarhar province was a strategic target zone during the Afghan conflict for the deployment of a new generation of deep-penetrating "cave-busting" and seismic shock warheads.

The UMRC says its team identified several hundred people suffering from illnesses and conditions similar to those of Gulf veterans, probably because they had inhaled uranium dust.

To test its hypothesis that some form of uranium weapon had been used, the UMRC sent urine specimens from 17 Afghans for analysis at an independent UK laboratory.

It says: "Without exception, every person donating urine specimens tested positive for uranium internal contamination.

"The results were astounding: the donors presented concentrations of toxic and radioactive uranium isotopes between 100 and 400 times greater than in the Gulf veterans tested in 1999.

"If UMRC's Nangarhar findings are corroborated in other communities across Afghanistan, the country faces a severe public health disaster... Every subsequent generation is at risk."

It says troops who fought in Afghanistan and the staff of aid agencies based in Afghanistan are also at risk.

Scientific acceptance

Dr Durakovic's team used as a control group three Afghans who showed no signs of contamination. They averaged 9.4 nanograms of uranium per litre of urine.

The average for his 17 "randomly-selected" patients was 315.5 nanograms, he said. Some were from Jalalabad, and others from Kabul, Tora Bora, and Mazar-e-Sharif. A 12-year-old boy living near Kabul had 2,031 nanograms.

The maximum permissible level for members of the public in the US is 12 nanograms per litre, Dr Durakovic said.

A second UMRC visit to Afghanistan in September 2002 found "a potentially much broader area and larger population of contamination". It collected 25 more urine samples, which bore out the findings from the earlier group.

Dr Durakovic said he was "stunned" by the results he had found, which are to be published shortly in several scientific journals.

Identical outcome

He told BBC News Online: "In Afghanistan there were no oil fires, no pesticides, nobody had been vaccinated - all explanations suggested for the Gulf veterans' condition.

"But people had exactly the same symptoms. I'm certainly not saying Afghanistan was a vast experiment with new uranium weapons. But use your common sense."

The UK Defence Ministry says it used no DU weapons in Afghanistan, nor any others containing uranium in any form.

A spokesman for the US Department of Defense told BBC News Online the US had not used DU weapons there.

He could not comment on Dr Durakovic's findings of elevated uranium levels in Afghan civilians.

North Korea admits nuclear arsenal Sunday, 17 November, 2002, 17:30 GMT

N Korea missile technology has alarmed neighbours North Korea has said for the first time that it has nuclear weapons.

A commentary broadcast on state radio said North Korea had developed "powerful military counter-measures, including nuclear weapons" to cope with what it called mounting nuclear threats from the United States.

Last month, Washington announced that North Korea had admitted to having a programme for producing highly-enriched uranium - a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

But this is the first time the communist state has made such an acknowledgement.

A foreign ministry statement in October said only that the country was "entitled" to have nuclear weapons.

President George Bush has repeatedly called on Pyongyang to eliminate its nuclear programme, saying it is the only way the country can have a viable future.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon says state media often contains hostile rhetoric and it is not clear how literally the broadcast - which was not attributed - is meant to be taken.

He says for years North Korea has tried to keep the world guessing about its nuclear capabilities.

Pyongyang's demands

Sunday's broadcast accused Washington of "slandering and injuring" North Korea.

America's "reckless manoeuvres", it said, were threatening the country's right to existence and sovereignty.

"Under these circumstances we cannot sit idle with our arms folded," the radio said.

It also repeated Pyongyang's demands that the US must sign a non-aggression pact, insisting it was the only way to resolve the nuclear issue.

The timing of the broadcast fits in with a pattern of North Korean "confession", according to Michael Yahuda, professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He told BBC News Online, it appeared they wanted to clear the way for talks.

"The US is threatening and, by responding, Pyongyang is sending out a message: 'We have nuclear weapons as well, so lets find a way to negotiation'," he said.

Aid stopped

The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said last month that North Korea might have one or two nuclear weapons.

Earlier this week, the US, South Korea, the European Union and Japan agreed to halt fuel aid to North Korea until Pyongyang moved to dismantle the programme.

Under a 1994 accord, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear programme in return for 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil a year in aid.

But Washington considers that Pyongyang nullified the 1994 pact when it reportedly admitted to a US envoy that it was trying to build nuclear weapons.