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By Patricia Reaney

LONDON (Reuters) - The impact of the Iraq (news - web sites) war on the country's ecology and public health could be greater and more costly than that of  any previous conflict in the region, environmental experts said on Wednesday.

                     Oil spills, burning wells, accidental or deliberate damage to pipelines, refineries, fertilizer plants and sewage treatment  works, and the use of depleted uranium weapons could cause long-term damage to Iraq's natural resources and to the people  who depend on them for a living.

                     "It could have a longer and worse impact, both because the area of impact is larger than in the Gulf War (news - web sites)

                     and because the population exposed is going to be far greater," Paul Horsman, an oil expert with the environmental group Greenpeace International, told Reuters.

                     "And it looks as though it (the Iraq war) could drag on a lot longer," he added.

                     Horsman, who worked with local scientists to deal with the impact of oil spills in Kuwait after the 1991 Gulf War, said the  movement of thousands of vehicles across the desert would in itself harm the environment.

                     "I think you will be able to go back in 10, 15 or 20 years time and still see those tracks in the desert," he said.

                     During the Gulf War, plumes of smoke from burning wells polluted the air and oil from the fires rained down and created  massive oil lakes in the desert.

                     "The vegetation was blanketed in the oil and huge parts of the desert looked like a giant car park," said Horsman.

                     DAMAGE LIMITATION

So far only a handful of oil wells have been set alight in Iraq compared with as many as 700 in Kuwait in 1991. A UNEP (United Nations (news - web sites) Environment Program) official said the agency was monitoring the fires. The Kuwait government is also assessing the level of soot and other particles in the air.

"We have some monitoring that shows it could reach some settled areas," Michael Williams, the UNEP spokesman in Amman, said in a telephone interview.

Although it is impossible to predict what will happen as the U.S.-led forces advance toward Baghdad, environmentalists believe the costs of the war will be high.

"Inevitably there will be a high environmental cost and how serious that is for people depends on how long the conflict lasts and what they do to rehabilitate and limit the damage afterwards," said William Jackson of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Switzerland.

Iraq has diverse and fragile ecosystems, embracing deserts in the north and marshlands in the south, considered by some to be the biblical location of the Garden of Eden.

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