While on a research trip to the Iraqi city of Basra in 1996, environmental engineer Souad Al-Azzawi encountered a mother taking care of three young children, all of them sick and unable to move on their own. With no idea why her children were ill, the mother hoped Al-Azzawi had come to help her family. Unfortunately, there was little Al-Azzawi—or anyone else—could do.
As the director of the doctoral program in environmental engineering at the University of Baghdad, Al-Azzawi had been researching radioactive contamination in Basra for years. She would go on to publish studies showing that cases of leukemia in children in Basra increased by 60 percent between 1990 and 1997, and that the number of children born with severe birth defects increased by a factor of three.
Al-Azzawi’s research points to depleted uranium as the culprit. Depleted uranium is a by-product of the enrichment of natural uranium, a process used to create fuel rods for nuclear power plants. Due to its incredible density, the United States and United Kingdom have used depleted uranium for tank armor and ammunition during military combat since the early 1990s, during the First Gulf War. While not as radioactive as natural uranium, the metal nevertheless poses a threat.
Basra is located in the very southern tip of Iraq, wedged between Iran, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf. It is the northern terminus of Highway 80, which runs due south all the way to Kuwait City. Iraqi forces used the road to stage the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Months later, as those same troops retreated, they were pinned by 10 hours of US aerial bombardment that left a trail of hundreds of smashed cars, tanks, and other vehicles and equipment strewn along the road.
“The kids were playing on the tanks [leftover from the Gulf War], and they were collecting the bullets,” Al-Azzawi said. “For some of the people, those bullets stayed in their houses for years. It was a disaster.”
Al-Azzawi first learned about the effects of depleted uranium in the early 1990s from environmental activists. Since then, she has devoted her life to researching its impacts, producing more than 50 research papers on chemicals used in the region and conducting three exploration programs to collect data from across areas in Iraq exposed to weapons of war.