Iraq must pay for a two-year probe by the World Health Organisation (WHO) into possible links between cancer and depleted uranium (DU) dropped by U.S.-led forces during the Gulf War, a WHO official said yesterday.

"None of these projects can really start until funding has been found for them, and funding, it has been agreed, will be at the Iraqi initiative," Neel Mani, the new director of the WHO's Iraq programme, said.

The UN health agency says it does not have enough approved funding of its own to help the Iraqis.

WHO officials and Iraqi health authorities agreed at a meeting in Baghdad last month that future work would focus on four projects, notably an examination of the health effects of environmental risks including DU.

The other areas deal with cancer surveillance, documenting cases of birth defects and kidney disease, and a plan to control cancer and other non-communicable diseases.

"If the Iraq government is not able to come up with the short sources of financing we would not be able to carry these projects forward," Mani said.

Iraq has claimed that investigations on the ground would start within two weeks.

However, Mani said implementation depended on Iraq's ability to find funding, estimated to run into millions of dollars, and to agree on technical criteria that the WHO would set out over the weekend.

"WHO would not involve itself in a project where it was not able to gather data that it could validate scientifically," he said.

He insisted that international experts must be able to go where they need inside Iraq and estimated that it would take between 18 to 24 months to complete the study.

"If certain equipment is required and it is not approved to be taken into the country by the sanctions committee then I'm afraid that that will mean that that part of the project will be at a stalemate," Mani said.

Baghdad says the United States and Britain fired more than 940,000 armour-piercing DU projectiles during the 1991 conflict and had requested a WHO study.

WHO studied radiation levels caused by the use of DU weapons in the Balkans and concluded that the health effect was minimal.But it believes that reports of increased cancer rates and birth defects in Iraq over the past decade warrant further investigation.

The agency regards existing cancer data for regions outside Baghdad as scientifically unreliable and said it would be improved if the study can go ahead.

The UN health agency has stressed that depleted uranium will not be the only focus of its research, and that it wants to study wider health issues. It cites the high rate of smoking among Iraqi men as a possible reason for high cancer rates.

Economic sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait have hit the nation's health sector hard.