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Remains of toxic bullets litter Iraq

The Monitor finds high levels of radiation left by US armor-piercing shells.

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At a roadside produce stand on the outskirts of Baghdad, business is brisk for Latifa Khalaf Hamid. Iraqi drivers pull up and snap up fresh bunches of parsley, mint leaves, dill, and onion stalks.

But Ms. Hamid's stand is just four paces away from a burnt-out Iraqi tank, destroyed by - and contaminated with - controversial American depleted-uranium (DU) bullets. Local children play "throughout the day" on the tank, Hamid says, and on another one across the road.

No one has warned the vendor in the faded, threadbare black gown to keep the toxic and radioactive dust off her produce. The children haven't been told not to play with the radioactive debris. They gather around as a Geiger counter carried by a visiting reporter starts singing when it nears a DU bullet fragment no bigger than a pencil eraser. It registers nearly 1,000 times normal background radiation levels on the digital readout.

The Monitor visited four sites in the city - including two randomly chosen destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles, a clutch of burned American ammunition trucks, and the downtown planning ministry - and found significant levels of radioactive contamination from the US battle for Baghdad.

In the first partial Pentagon disclosure of the amount of DU used in Iraq, a US Central Command spokesman told the Monitor that A-10 Warthog aircraft - the same planes that shot at the Iraqi planning ministry - fired 300,000 bullets. The normal combat mix for these 30-mm rounds is five DU bullets to 1 - a mix that would have left about 75 tons of DU in Iraq.

The Monitor saw only one site where US troops had put up handwritten warnings in Arabic for Iraqis to stay away. There, a 3-foot-long DU dart from a 120 mm tank shell, was found producing radiation at more than 1,300 times background levels. It made the instrument's staccato bursts turn into a steady whine.

"If you have pieces or even whole [DU] penetrators around, this is not an acute health hazard, but it is for sure above radiation protection dose levels," says Werner Burkart, the German deputy director general for Nuclear Sciences and Applications at the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. "The important thing in any battlefield - especially in populated urban areas - is somebody has to clean up these sites."

Minimizing the risk
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