BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Amr Mouftah and a couple of friends were playing on the demolished Iraqi armored personnel carriers, climbing onto turrets and swinging and leaping from gun barrels.
"This is great fun - just like having a big new toy," said 11-year-old Amr.
On the sidewalk, pedestrians squeezed past the charred vehicles. None was aware of the potential danger inside the metal hulks littering Baghdad, destroyed when U.S.-led strikes used depleted uranium shells against tanks and other armored vehicles.
Iraqi doctors and scientists - and the United Nations to a lesser extent - are worried that birth defects and childhood cancers could surge in the aftermath of the latest conflict, not unlike medical problems in southern Iraq after the mildly radioactive munitions were first used in the 1991 Gulf War.
"Many in the medical community are worried that malignancies will rise very quickly in the future because so many people will be exposed to depleted uranium residue throughout the country," said Ranna Abdel Karim, a doctor at Baghdad's Children's Hospital.
Depleted uranium, fashioned from low-level radioactive wastes, is 21/2 times denser than steel and 1.7 times denser than lead. This theoretically creates a projectile more able to penetrate the heavy armor of tanks than conventional armor-piercing munitions.
U.S. tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, A-10 attack jets and Apache helicopters routinely use depleted uranium rounds.
Aside from the United States and Britain, no other nation uses the munitions. Russian military experts say shells made from alloys of hardened steel, lead and tungsten are equally effective in the anti-tank role.
The substance is said to be harmless when sealed in artillery shells or bombs. But when a shell strikes its target, some of the metal burns and oxidizes into microscopic particles. This creates dust that some say is toxic if inhaled or ingested.
Experts at the Pentagon and the United Nations estimate that 1,100-2,200 tons of depleted uranium was used by U.S.-led coalition forces during their attack on Iraq in March and April.
The U.N. Environment Program, while acknowledging its assessments have found no immediate risk, has recommended a scientific investigation of sites targeted by depleted uranium weapons in Iraq.
"The fact remains that depleted uranium is still an issue of great concern for the general public," UNEP director Klaus Toepfer said.
Unlike the 1991 war, when most combat took place in Iraq's southeastern tip, the fighting this time engulfed some of the country's most densely populated areas.
The Pentagon and many experts contend that depleted uranium, because of its low radioactivity, poses no risk to the health of soldiers handling munitions made from it, or to civilians living in areas where those shells were used.
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