Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2015
By PAX, March 3, 2015
The Pentagon has announced that depleted uranium (DU) munitions have not, and will not be used by US warplanes in the conflict against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The policy U-turn contrasts with statements made over previous months where Pentagon officials claimed that DU would be used “if needed.” The decision reflects a growing stigmatization of the controversial armor-piercing shells.
Since the decision to send twelve A-10 Thunderbolt gunships to the Middle East as part of Operation Inherent Resolve last December, concerns have been raised that the US would once again use DU in Iraq—already the world’s most DU-contaminated country. Just months before the deployment was announced, Iraq had called on the United Nations for technical assistance in dealing with the legacy of the 404 metric tons of DU (445 US/short tons) that was fired by the US and UK in the conflicts in 1991 and 2003. Iraq also argued in favor of a global treaty ban on the weapons.
In spite of Iraq’s clear and highly visible position against DU weapons, a Pentagon spokesperson said in October that 30 millimeter DU ammunition would be loaded onto the A-10 gunships and used as needed. “If the need is to explode something—for example a tank—[depleted uranium] will be used,” the Pentagon said.
However, in a remarkable change in policy, and in response to questioning from a journalist working with IRIN [news service], the Pentagon said its “Combined Joint Task Force can confirm that US and Coalition aircraft have not been, and will not be, using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.”
PAX’s Wim Zwijnenburg welcomed the U-turn, arguing that the conflict is complex enough. Zwijnenburg said, “The further use of these chemically toxic and radioactive munitions would have been yet another burden on the Iraqi population. They are already facing a humanitarian crisis and have grave concerns over the health legacy of historic DU use. The Iraqi government is still struggling with the clean-up of past US DU use, with Iraqi workers and civilians at risk of exposure.”
Depleted uranium isn’t becoming any more acceptable
Since last October, campaigners and parliamentarians in Belgium, the Netherlands and UK have urged their governments to challenge the US on the issue. The decision to deploy the A-10s came days before 150 countries backed a UN General Assembly resolution calling for international assistance to states affected by DU and for greater transparency over past use to allow clean-up.
International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) Coordinator Doug Weir said, “The overwhelming majority of states have grave concerns about DU weapons. ICBUW believes that this U-turn by the US reflects the growing global stigmatization of DU.” Weir also said, “Coalition partners are responsible for the actions of their peers and it would have been unthinkable for the US to once again use DU on the territory of a country that has so recently called for a global ban on the weapons.”
Fears that DU would be used in attacks against IS recently emerged in the besieged Syrian town of Raqqa, where concern has been expressed over the long-term public health and environmental legacy of the Coalition’s use of the anti-tank munitions.
Identifying, assessing and cleaning-up DU-contaminated military scrap metal in Iraq remains a daunting problem even a decade after the conflict. Iraq’s effort to reduce the risks that DU poses to civilians continues to be hampered by the US military’s refusal to hand over wartime firing coordinates, in spite of calls to do from Congress and US civil rights organizations.
The Pentagon’s statement referred only to the use of DU by coalition aircraft. In the event that US land forces are employed in the conflict, there is still a risk that DU may be used by US armored vehicles and tanks.
—PAX , based in The Netherlands, seeks to accelerate global nuclear disarmament by stigmatizing, outlawing and eliminating nuclear arsenals