When a baby is born in southern Iraq these days, the mother's first question is not whether the child is male or female. "What she wants to know is whether her baby is normal," says Janan Ghalib, head of the cancer unit at Basra's Maternity and Children Hospital.
The doctor needs only to flip open a photo album filled with horrors to explain why. There are pictures of babies without eyes, and some with too many eyes. There are infants with huge growths, amphibian-like limbs and other deformities so grotesque that the babies barely resemble human beings at all.
And there are before-and-after photographs of normal-looking young children who have apparently been transformed into monsters -- the result, Dr. Ghalib believes, of depleted uranium used by the U.S. military during the Persian Gulf war.
The worries at Basra's main children's hospital are about more than the uranium-laden bombs that rained down on southern Iraq in 1991. If the United States carries through with threats to again strike President Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqis such as Dr. Ghalib fear the fallout will again hit them.
Although independent studies have not been carried out, Iraqi medical experts in Basra, near the Kuwaiti border, believe a sharp rise in recorded deformities and cancer -- especially leukemia -- is linked to the depleted uranium contained in U.S. bombs dropped during the war. And they fear much more may be coming their way.
Until the early 1990s, doctors say, the rate of what is termed "congenital malformation" in the babies of southern Iraq was no higher than anywhere else.
But beginning in about 1995, they say, the numbers began steadily rising. Last year, the doctors knew of at least 260 instances of deformation in the region, accounting for 3 per cent of all births. That compares with 221 in 2000 and just 11 in 1994.
As for leukemia, the hospital treated 15 children in 1993, 60 in 2000 and 73 last year. Those figures are incomplete, the physicians stress, because some children are taken to Baghdad for treatment, while others in the impoverished south are never brought to their attention.
Health experts warn that the growing numbers, which are not dissimilar to rates found in the West, could be the result of other factors such as better information, worsening health-care conditions or an environmental disaster -- a nuclear leak, for example -- that has not been reported.
Still, the World Health Organization believes they are worth investigating. It has tried to launch a research program, but needs better data and equipment that would have to be cleared by the United Nations sanctions committee, which must approve all Iraqi imports.
In Basra, doctors believe the time lag between the gulf war and the beginning of the trend is because of the depleted uranium's "incubation" period of several years. They cite a similar postwar delay in Japan after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Pentagon has acknowledged using depleted uranium, not only in Iraq and Kuwait but also in Kosovo during the 1999 conflict there. Depleted uranium is favoured in missiles because it enhances their armour-piercing capacity.
However, the U.S. military has stated repeatedly it does not believe the substance can have the effect on humans that the Iraqi government is saying it does.
In nearby Kuwait, there has been no recorded increase in child abnormalities since the war. Another major difficulty with verification is that Iraq's medical records, like much else within the health-care system, are in shambles.
But while the Iraqi government is often accused of producing disinformation, Dr. Ghalib and her colleague, Assad Essa Achim, the hospital's chief doctor in residence, come across as dedicated professionals who have become almost weary of relaying their findings.
"You reporters come in and listen, then you go away and nothing ever happens," said Dr. Ghalib, visibly impatient.
While the Basra doctors await help, their hospital, like almost every other one in Iraq, is in dire straits. Despite the United Nations oil-for-food program that is supposed to allow the import of humanitarian assistance, including medical equipment, Dr. Achim says, the hospital is getting only 20 per cent of what it needs.
Chemotherapy is not available because the necessary equipment is considered to have military uses.
As a result, Dr. Achim says, 80 per cent of the children diagnosed with leukemia die, compared with a 15-per-cent to 20-per-cent rate in the world's rich countries. "Bush and Clinton really don't know what is happening here," he said of U.S. President George W. Bush and former president Bill Clinton. "If they did, they would hang themselves."