"A major threat to the Iraqi people is the accumulation of physical damage to the country's environmental infrastructure," the U.N. Environment Program said in conjunction with the release of a study of Iraq.
"Many environmental problems in Iraq are so alarming that an immediate assessment and a cleanup plan are needed urgently," said Pekka Haavisto, chairman of the study.
Environmental priorities for postwar Iraq are restoring the water and sanitation systems, cleaning up possible pollution hot spots and waste sites and providing information to residents on minimizing the risk of exposure to depleted uranium, which was used by coalition forces in its ordnance.
The next tasks in order are the cleanup of hazardous wastes and emissions, improvement of water management and restoration of the country's ecosystem - in particular the Mesopotamian Marshlands, 90 percent of which were drained on Saddam's orders after the 1991 Gulf War, the study said.
Lack of investment in water and sanitation systems has led to increased pollution and health risks, while electricity cuts have often shut down pumps that remove sewage and circulate fresh water, UNEP said.
The destruction of military hardware and factories during Iraq's various wars has released heavy metals and other dangerous substances into the air, soil and water. Smoke from oil-well fires and burning oil trenches during the current war caused localized air pollution and soil contamination.
Heavy bombing and the movement of large numbers of vehicles and troops also has degraded the ecosystem, UNEP said. "When the desert's hard-packed surface is disturbed, the underlying sand is exposed and often erodes or blows away."
UNEP said there should be a quick assessment of any environmental contamination from the use of depleted uranium weapons during the current war and the 1991 Gulf War.
The agency, which has previously studied the impact of conflict on former the Yugoslavia, Albania and Palestinian territories, said its Iraq study was based on published sources. It has been unable to do its own study on the ground since the start of the current war.
By Naomi Koppel