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A rare visit to Iraq's radioactive battlefield

The men who guard the ruins of the remote Kharanj oil-pumping station near Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia don't wander around much.

Destroyed by US air raids during the 1991 Gulf War, parts of this facility remain "hot" - radioactive. So the guards confine themselves to one small building to avoid wreckage contaminated by US bullets made with depleted uranium (DU).

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The wind is a constant companion in this desert, but today it has eased. Driving into the former battlefield, as on a rare visit last year facilitated by Iraqi authorities at the request of The Christian Science Monitor, this reporter passes south through Iraq's rich Rumeila oil fields and along the area near Kuwait, which is pockmarked with rusting tanks and vehicles.

These machines were targets of armor-piercing DU "penetrators," the bullet of choice for American tank gunners and pilots during the Gulf War. Pentagon figures show that at least 860,000 DU rounds were fired.

Along a side road, a group of falconers are hunting, unaware of the potential risks, while elsewhere two men search for mushrooms.

Radiation occurs almost everywhere in nature, at low levels known as "background." But DU is a concentrated form, nuclear scientists say. It is the "tailings" left over from the enrichment process that produces nuclear fuel and bombs. When a DU bullet burns on impact, it turns to particles that emit potentially dangerous radiation.

Here, where the guards gingerly carry out their duty at the Kharanj pumping station, clues of radiation are plentiful. The bullets are now spent. The depleted uranium was either turned into dust or broke into fragments that now corrode in the sand.

BUT among the clues is one DU round the size of a thick marker pen that was fired from the sky at a 45-degree angle and grazed a wall. It created an eight-inch-long skid mark of encrusted DU particles. Mahmoud Hossein from Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission handled a radiation detector in a visit to the site observed by the Monitor.

Swept over the black specks of DU dust near a bullet-entry hole in a protected doorway, the instrument erupts with staccato chirping. Its meter surges to 35 times background levels, causing Mr. Hossein to appear startled.

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The fighting that took place on these battlefields seven years ago (see map, page 14) was so intense and released so many pulverized DU particles that the entire area was almost certainly drenched in radioactive and toxic grit.

In the midst of the Rumeila north oil field, Iraqi officials examine a destroyed armored vehicle mired in wet sand. The turret had been blown off and sits 50 yards away. It is radioactive, along with the toe of a military boot.

But, for some, the danger is easy to ignore or to miss altogether.

An Iraqi officer jumps into the rusting hulk, radiation meter in hand, even as DU particles inside makes the instrument sing.

A glance behind shows that this site often gets local visitors. On the moist sand, clearly defined, is the fresh imprint of a bare human foot.

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