Inside Story America

Did the US cause Fallujah’s birth defects?

As deformities spike in the Iraqi city, we ask if the US has been honest about weaponry used during the 2004 assaults.

New research is underway on the alarming increase in birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

In November 2004, the US led an assault on Fallujah – a stronghold of opposition against the US occupation, west of Baghdad. Intense bombardment left many of its buildings destroyed and displaced much of the 300,000-strong population. 

‘Shake and bake’ is an instance of using white phosphorus offensively, in the language we were using at the time, to smoke insurgents out of their fighting holes then using high explosives to kill them later.”

– Ross Caputi, a former US marine

Eventually, the US was forced to admit that amongst its arsenal was white phosphorus – a substance the Pentagon described as a ‘chemical weapon’ when it was used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds.

In addition, eyewitnesses claimed the US military used “unusual weapons”.

Subsequent investigations have focused on the possible use of depleted uranium by the US for its armour-piercing qualities. The US, however, denies using such weaponry.

Research has shown elevated levels of radioactivity in Fallujah and across Iraq.

Iraqi physicians have also long reported a spike in cases involving severe birth defects in Fallujah since 2004. They have reported children born with multiple heads, serious brain damage, missing limbs and with extra fingers and toes.

A report published in 2011 on the level of uranium and other contaminants in hair from the parents of children with congenital anomalies in Fallujah partly concluded that: “Whilst caution must be exercised about ruling out other possibilities, because none of the elements found in excess are reported to cause congenital diseases and cancer except uranium, these findings suggest the enriched uranium exposure is either a primary cause or related to the cause of the congenital anomaly and cancer increases. Questions are thus raised about the characteristics and composition of weapons now being deployed in modern battlefields.”

Some kind of dust or material, whether it’s uranium, whether it’s some chemical we don’t know, must’ve got into the air, must’ve got into people’s bodies and into their food and their water … there are traces, most of the material are inside the individual parents.”

– Dai Williams, a weapons researcher

Al Jazeera’s Sebastian Walker reporting for the programme Fault Lines examined the legacy of the US occupation in Iraq and described what he saw on a road trip across Iraq after the withdrawal of US troops.

“What we found by visiting the general hospital there is that there are extremely high rates of birth defects, some five times the international norm, and many of the doctors who work in those hospitals believe that this is a direct result of the kind of weapons the US forces were using in those campaigns.”

Many researchers say uranium from the shelling may be to blame. However, no conclusive proof of a link has been established.

In this episode Inside Story Americas asks: Is the US being honest about the use of unconventional weapons, and the possible link with the rising incidence of birth defects in Fallujah?
Joining the discussion with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Ross Caputi, a former US marine who fought in the battle for Fallujah in November 2004 and co-founder of the Justice for Fallujah Project; Dai Williams, a weapons researcher whose work focuses on community health in conflict zones associated with new types of weapons; and Raed Jarrar, an Iraq analyst and the executive director for a Washington-based global strategy firm.

“The promises at that time were that the US will go in and get rid of all the bad guys and rebuild the city, [but] that did not happen. We saw a total destruction of Fallujah and the use of so many unconventional weapons ….”

Raed Jarrar, a Middle East and North Africa expert


US forces used the chemical in the Iraqi city in November 2004, purportedly to light up the battlefield.
Its use is legal as long as civilians are not targeted.
The US has used white phosphorus in some form or another since World War I.
US officials initially denied its use in Fallujah, but in 2005 General Peter Pace confirmed it.
White phosphorus particles burn through clothes to the bone, stick to skin and cannot be relieved by water.
The substance spontaneously ignites at about 30 Celcius, and continues to burn until it is deprived of oxygen.
Depleted uranium bullets were used heavily in the second battle for Fallujah, in tank armour and to reinforce steel. They were also used in Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003.