Radioactive wreckage, landmines blight Iraq: minister

By AFP

June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 23, 2009 at 9:31 PM EDT

Radioactive wreckage and tens of millions of landmines still blight Iraq after decades of war and the deadly violence that engulfed the nation after the 2003 invasion, the environment minister has said.

Narmin Othman Hasan told AFP in an interview that a lack of funding and Iraq's fragile security situation is hampering efforts to clean up contaminated sites across the country.

She said the only a fraction of tanks and other wartime vehicles contaminated with depleted uranium have been successfully treated and disposed of by the Iraqi authorities.

"We have only found 80 percent (of the contaminated sites)... because of the (lack of) security there are still some areas we can't reach," Hasan estimated.

The twin menaces are the legacy of decades of conflict: the 1980-1988 war with neighbouring Iran, the 1991 Gulf war that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath.

The environment ministry's limited budget -- around 100 million dollars compared to the "billions" that are judged necessary to tackle the country's myriad environmental challenges -- also gets in the way, Hasan said.

Depleted uranium, a radioactive metal present in armour piercing bullets used by US-led forces during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion, and which is twice as dense as lead, has been blamed for health problems from cancer to birth defects, but much research remains inconclusive.

"All radiation is dangerous -- but how much depleted uranium radiation is affecting health, that is still under study," Hasan said, adding that media reports of negative health effects from depleted uranium had contributed to a "panic" among the Iraqi public.

"It's two steps: treating and dumping. We can't just bring a tank and dump it, we must treat it and minimise it. It takes time," she said in the interview on Thursday.

But dealing with the landmines that continue to maim and kill innocent Iraqis is her most pressing concern, she said.

"For one person we have one mine planted. We have 25 million mines in Iraq -- one quarter of the world's mines."

The deactivation and removal of mines, however, remains a controversial issue across the conflict-torn nation.

The United Nations has said the Iraqi army's decision to ban civilian-led mine-clearance operations is seriously damaging Baghdad's pledge to rid itself of the deadly munitions.

Iraq signed up to the Ottawa Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention last year, requiring it to clear all areas littered with such ordnance by 2018, but the United Nations warned in July that this target is in jeopardy.

Iraq's army banned civilian contractors from mine-clearing activities last December, citing security concerns. It has been claimed that some villagers have dug up unspent munitions and sold them to insurgents.

"No one actor can accomplish this vast task of de-mining Iraq by itself -- even one as powerful as the military," Andrew Gilmour, the UN's deputy special representative of the secretary general to Iraq, said last month.

Hasan also said that Iraq's water supply crisis is continuing, as a result of restricted flows originating from Turkey, the source of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as well as from tributaries in Iran.

"Turkey and Iran in my opinion are the big problem," she said.

"They know the situation in Iraq and how much of a problem there is, because the marshlands in Iraq are fed by the Euphrates and the Tigris."

The area, home to a unique culture for hundreds of years, was drained by Saddam in the 1990s in an attempt to flush out Shiite rebels hiding in its vast network of waterways.

The destruction left about only 10 percent of the ecosystem remaining, according to the United Nations, and displaced tens of thousands of people.




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