FORTY-EIGHT hours after the Gulf war ended, an Iraqi Republican Guard tank division was making for its base outside Basra along a narrow causeway over Lake Hamar. It was one of five agreed exit routes for the defeated army to take in its retreat. The ground war had lasted just 100 hours and there had been 79 American deaths, eight of them among the 24th Division, commanded by General Barry McCaffrey, whose armour and ordnance was lying about three miles away from the causeway.
Suddenly, and over-riding a warning from the division operations officer, McCaffrey ordered an assault on the column. Later he would claim that his troops had been fired on by the retreating Iraqis, which is hotly denied by the Republican Guard commander. Apache attack helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles and artillery units pummelled the helpless column for hours. It was, as McCaffrey later commented, "one of the most astounding scenes of destruction I have ever participated in."
More than 10 years later, the destruction can still be seen. What is left of the division pokes rustily from the sand over several square miles. It is one of the world's largest junkyards. And it could also be said to be the epicentre of the controversy over depleted uranium. DU shells and rockets had ripped into the column in the most prolonged use of this ordnance on any one spot in the history of their invention.
Six months ago, when I visited the site of what has become known as the Battle of Rumaila, with a scientist carrying a Geiger counter, the needle threatened to burst out of its casing as he repeatedly ran it over sand and wreckage, gun barrels, tank parts and spent DU detritus. Which may, of course, prove nothing.
Dr Jawad Khadim al-Ali is a British-trained doctor and a member of the Royal College of Physicians. He works in Basra's main hospital. He showed me his maps of cancer and leukaemia clusters which coincide with the most intensive use of DU weapons in the war. Again, connection could be coincidental.
The doctor also showed me the book of horrors kept by the medical staff - photographs of the grotesque, mis-shapen, stillborn children born in the hospital. There are kids with no brains, some with one eye in the middle of the head, others with extra limbs. It is the most diverse collection of malformations and deformities I have ever seen - and, I suspect, any doctor anywhere outside of southern Iraq.
According to Dr Jawad there has been a four-fold increase in cancers in the area where the use of uranium-tipped weapons was most severe. Two in a hundred children in Basra are now being born with birth defects. If could be, of course, as my old pal Doug Henderson has alluded, propaganda. When he was a defence minister he poured doubt on any increase in cancers and birth defects in southern Iraq. "The government has not seen any peer-reviewed epidemiological research data on this population to support these claims ," he said.
There is none, of course . Because the World Health Organisation, invited by Iraq to start research into the cancers, was persuaded not to do so by the British and US. And a group of Royal Society scientists tasked by the British authorities to investigate the local effects of DU declined to visit Iraq.
Dr Kamil Mahdi, of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, attended a seminar last February at the Foreign Office where the then head of the Middle East section said that the ministry was going to cooperate with the Department for International Development and the WHO on research into the health effect of DU in southern Iraq. "When I probed Ron White of DFID he said that it would only support research into the health effects of the Iraqi regime's use of chemical weapons in Halabja in 1988," he says now.
The Basra hospitals are full of young people suffering from horrendous tumours, most of them not even born when the Gulf war ended. Most are largely untreated because of the shortage of medicines, drips, anti-coagulants and basic life-saving equipment.
British and US ministers are fond of quoting that there is no embargo on food or medicines, but the UN sanctions committee in New York continually delays essential supplies .
The patients lie on sheetless beds because detergents are banned on the grounds that they can be put to dual use - a crude bomb manufactured from a box of Persil, presumably. One of those patients was Ali Mohammed, a soldier who escaped the initial carnage of Rumaila. His belly was distended from a massive tumour, and one testicle had been removed. Dr Jawad held up his hands. "There's nothing we can do. Maybe if we had the drugs É maybe if we had caught it earlier."
Across the hot room - the air-conditioning equipment has long since ground to a halt, replacement parts sanctioned - eight-year old Hassan is lying comatose, blood spots on his pallid cheeks a tell-tale sign of intestinal bleeding. He came from Kerbala, close to Iraqi military bases blitzed with DU during the war. I found out later that it took him about three weeks to bleed to death.
Perhaps the upsurge in cancers is a by-product of the burning oilfields set alight by Saddam's armies, or from the direct hits on his chemical weapons factories. But there is a more likely explanation lying on the sands, in the water table and in the blood . Gulf war veterans know it. Other European governments suspect it. It is just Britain and the US who refuse to even properly investigate.
These victims are Iraqis, of course, Muslims in a distant and hostile country. They are not Europeans or Caucasians . But what is happening in Basra is likely to be mimicked in Belgrade . It's only losers, of course, who go on trial for war crimes.
Copyright 2001 Sunday Herald