Mon Sep 01 2003 15:05:42 ET


SOLDIERS and civilians in Iraq face a health timebomb after dangerously high levels of radiation were measured around Baghdad.

Levels between 1,000 and 1,900 times higher than normal were recorded at four sites around the Iraqi capital where depleted uranium (DU) munitions have been used across wide areas.

Experts estimate that Britain and the US used 1,100 to 2,200 tons of armour-piercing shells made of DU during attacks on Iraqi forces.

That figure eclipses the 375tons used in the 1991 Gulf War. Unlike that largely desert-based conflict, most of the rounds fired in March and April were in heavily residential areas.

DU rounds are highly combustible and tiny particles of the radioactive material are left on the battleground.

If inhaled the material can attack the body causing cancers, chronic illness, long-term disabilities and genetic birth defects - none of which will be apparent for at least five years ....

The Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific body, described America's failure to confirm how much or where they used DU rounds as an "appalling situation".

Professor Brian Spratt, chairman of the society's working group on DU, said: "The Americans are really giving us no information at all and think it is a pretty appalling situation that they are not taking this seriously at all.

"We really need someone like the UN Environment Programme or the World Health Organisation to get into Iraq and start testing civilians and soldiers for uranium exposure."

Evidence of massive uranium radiation has emerged in recent weeks. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle analysed swabs from bullet holes in Iraqi tanks and confirmed elevated radiation levels.

Last month Scott Peterson, of the respected Christian Science Monitor, took Geiger counter readings at several sites in Baghdad. Near the Republican Palace, his radiation readings were the "hottest" in Iraq at nearly 1,900 times background radiation levels.

Even the Ministry of Defence, which has consistently refused to accept there are dangers involved in DU exposure or that it has played role in Gulf War illnesses is addressing the problem. Soldiers returning from this year's conflict will be routinely tested for uranium poisoning. Professor Malcolm Hooper, who sits on two committees advising the Government on Gulf health issues, said he is not surprised by the radiation levels.

He said: "Really these things are dirty bombs. Exactly the sort of device that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair keep talking about being in the hands of terrorists."

Dozens of US soldiers, backed by armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships, searched farms on the outskirts of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul yesterday in their hunt for followers of Saddam Hussein.

THOUSANDS of Iraqis packed into northern Baghdad yesterday for the funeral of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, a Shi'ite Muslim cleric slain by a car bomb which also killed scores of his followers.

A senior official in Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said the Americans bore some blame for Friday's attack as they had failed to ensure adequate security measures.

Up to five suspects, all of them Iraqi, have been detained over the car bomb attack, the local governor said yesterday.