The U.N. Environment Program says Iraq has thousands of heavily contaminated sites that pose a danger to public health and the environment. It has just launched a report that assesses five environmental "hot spots" that were bombed or looted during the coalition-led war.
Experts who investigated the five sites say they are probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of environmental hot spots.
The report notes that one of the sites is a metal-plating facility on a flat plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. It was bombed, looted, and then demolished in an uncontrolled manner during and after the 2003 conflict. It says the four other sites were heavily looted.
Iraq's Minister of Environment, Narmin Othman Hassan, says all of the hot spots are contaminated by various toxic compounds, chemicals or pesticides. She notes four are situated near Baghdad and one near the city of Mosul, potentially putting millions of people at risk.
"Those areas which were bombed and looted by the people, were not looted by the rich people," he said. "They were looted by the poor people because they needed tanks, they needed the material. They needed to sell it outside and they were really uneducated people for they did not know what is the risk of that."
The U.N. Environment Program says it will take years to investigate the thousands of contaminated sites that exist in Iraq. Among them are 311 sites polluted by depleted uranium. It says it plans to assess another 150 sites over the next six months.
The executive director of UNEP, Klaus Topfer, says Iraq has a legacy of contaminated and derelict industrial and military sites. He notes five main reasons for the contamination.
"The one reason was the consequences and still not fully assessed consequences of the war Iraq-Iran," he said. "The second was the first Gulf war. The third is the result of years of lack of investment in environment management, so there was no environment policy in this regime. And, then we have the second war and we have to looting."
U.N. staff members are not allowed to work in Iraq for security reasons. So, work on this project was carried out by Iraqis. More than 30 experts from Iraq were trained in assessment techniques at workshops in Jordan, Switzerland and Britain. These Iraqis have since trained more than 100 other Iraqis, thus building up a domestic force of experts able to carry out environmental operations.
The U.N. Environment Program plans to begin cleaning up two of the most contaminated sites in December.