The fog of war: white phosphorus, Fallujah and some burning questions

By Andrew Buncombe and Solomon Hughes in Washington
Published: 15 November 2005

The controversy has raged for 12 months. Ever since
last November, when US forces battled to clear
Fallujah of insurgents, there have been repeated
claims that troops used "unusual" weapons in the
assault that all but flattened the Iraqi city.
Specifically, controversy has focussed on white
phosphorus shells (WP) - an incendiary weapon usually
used to obscure troop movements but which can equally
be deployed as an offensive weapon against an enemy.
The use of such incendiary weapons against civilian
targets is banned by international treaty.

The debate was reignited last week when an Italian
documentary claimed Iraqi civilians - including women
and children - had been killed by terrible burns
caused by WP. The documentary, Fallujah: the Hidden
Massacre, by the state broadcaster RAI, cited one
Fallujah human-rights campaigner who reported how
residents told how "a rain of fire fell on the city".
Yesterday, demonstrators organised by the Italian
communist newspaper, Liberazione, protested outside
the US Embassy in Rome. Today, another protest is
planned for the US Consulate in Milan. "The 'war on
terrorism' is terrorism," one of the newspaper's
commentators declared.

The claims contained in the RAI documentary have met
with a strident official response from the US, as well
as from right-wing commentators and bloggers who have
questioned the film's evidence and sought to undermine
its central allegations.

While military experts have supported some of these
criticisms, an examination by The Independent of the
available evidence suggests the following: that WP
shells were fired at insurgents, that reports from the
battleground suggest troops firing these WP shells did
not always know who they were hitting and that there
remain widespread reports of civilians suffering
extensive burn injuries. While US commanders insist
they always strive to avoid civilian casualties, the
story of the battle of Fallujah highlights the
intrinsic difficulty of such an endeavour.

It is also clear that elements within the US
government have been putting out incorrect information
about the battle of Fallujah, making it harder to
assesses the truth. Some within the US government have
previously issued disingenuous statements about the
use in Iraq of another controversial incendiary weapon
- napalm.

The assault upon Fallujah, 40 miles from Baghdad, took
place over a two-week period last November. US
commanders said the city was an insurgent stronghold.
Civilians were ordered to evacuate in advance. Around
50 US troops and an estimated 1,200 insurgents were
killed. How many civilians were killed is unclear. Up
to 300,000 people were driven from the city.

Following the RAI broadcast, the US Embassy in Rome
issued a statement which denied that US troops had
used WP as a weapon. It said: "To maintain that US
forces have been using WP against human targets ... is
simply mistaken." In a similar denial, the US
Ambassador in London, Robert Tuttle, wrote to the The
Independent claiming WP was only used as an obscurant
or else for marking targets. In his letter, he says:
"US forces participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom
continue to use appropriate, lawful and conventional
weapons against legitimate targets. US forces do not
use napalm or phosphorus as weapons."

However, both these two statements are undermined by
first-hand evidence from troops who took part in the
fighting. They are also undermined by an admission by
the Pentagon that WP was used as a weapon against

In a comprehensive written account of the military
operation at Fallujah, three US soldiers who
participated said WP shells were used against
insurgents taking cover in trenches. Writing in the
March-April edition of Field Artillery, the magazine
of the US Field Artillery based in Fort Sill,
Oklahoma, which is readily available on the internet,
the three artillery men said: "WP proved to be an
effective and versatile munition. We used it for
screening missions ... and, later in the fight, as a
potent psychological weapon against insurgents in
trench lines and spider holes ... We fired 'shake and
bake' missions at the insurgents using WP to flush
them out and high explosive shells (HE) to take them

Another first-hand account from the battlefield was
provided by an embedded reporter for the North County
News, a San Diego newspaper. Reporter Darrin Mortenson
wrote of watching Cpl Nicholas Bogert fire WP rounds
into Fallujah. He wrote: "Bogert is a mortar team
leader who directed his men to fire round after round
of high explosives and white phosphorus charges into
the city Friday and Saturday, never knowing what the
targets were or what damage the resulting explosions

Mr Mortenson also watched the mortar team fire into a
group of buildings where insurgents were known to be
hiding. In an email, he confirmed: "During the fight I
was describing in my article, WP mortar rounds were
used to create a fire in a palm grove and a cluster of
concrete buildings that were used as cover by Iraqi
snipers and teams that fired heavy machine guns at US
choppers." Another report, published in the Washington
Post, gave an idea of the sorts of injuries that WP
causes. It said insurgents "reported being attacked
with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction
consistent with white phosphorous burns". A physician
at a local hospital said the corpses of insurgents
"were burned, and some corpses were melted".

The use of incendiary weapons such as WP and napalm
against civilian targets - though not military targets
- is banned by international treaty. Article two,
protocol III of the 1980 UN Convention on Certain
Conventional Weapons states: "It is prohibited in all
circumstances to make the civilian population as such,
individual civilians or civilian objects, the object
of attack by incendiary weapons." Some have claimed
the use of WP contravenes the 1993 Chemical Weapons
Convention which bans the use of any "toxic chemical"
weapons which causes "death, harm or temporary
incapacitation to humans or animals through their
chemical action on life processes".

However, Peter Kaiser, a spokesman for the
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
(OPCW), which enforces the convention, said the
convention permitted the use of such weapons for
"military purposes not connected with the use of
chemical weapons and not dependent on the use of the
toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare".
He said the burns caused by WP were thermic rather
than chemical and as such not prohibited by the

The RAI film said civilians were also victims of the
use of WP and reported claims by a campaigner from
Fallujah, Mohamad Tareq, that many victims had large
burns. The report claimed that the clothes on some
victims appeared to be intact even though their bodies
were badly burned.

Critics of the RAI film - including the Pentagon - say
such a claim undermines the likelihood that WP was
responsible for the injuries since WP would have also
burned their clothes. This opinion is supported by a
leading military expert. John Pike, director of the
military studies group, said of WP:
"If it hits your clothes it will burn your clothes and
if it hits your skin it will just keep on burning."
Though Mr Pike had not seen the RAI film, he said the
burned appearance of some bodies may have been caused
by exposure to the elements.

Yet there are other, independent reports of civilians
from Fallujah suffering burn injuries. For instance,
Dahr Jamail, an unembedded reporter who collected the
testimony of refugees from the city spoke to a doctor
who had remained in the city to help people,
encountered numerous reports of civilians suffering
unusual burns.

One resident told him the US used "weird bombs that
put up smoke like a mushroom cloud" and that he
watched "pieces of these bombs explode into large
fires that continued to burn on the skin even after
people dumped water on the burns." The doctor said he
"treated people who had their skin melted"

Jeff Englehart, a former marine who spent two days in
Fallujah during the battle, said he heard the order go
out over military communication that WP was to be
dropped. In the RAI film, Mr Englehart, now an
outspoken critic of the war, says: "I heard the order
to pay attention because they were going to use white
phosphorus on Fallujah. In military jargon it's known
as Willy Pete ... Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it
melts the flesh all the way down to the bone ... I saw
the burned bodies of women and children."

In the aftermath of the battle, the State Department's
Counter Misinformation Office issued a statement
saying that WP was only "used [WP shells] very
sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes. They
were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions
at night, not at enemy fighters." When The Independent
confronted the State Department with the first-hand
accounts of soldiers who participated, an official
accepted the mistake and undertook to correct its
website. This has since been done.

Indeed, the Pentagon readily admits WP was used.
Spokesman Lt Colonel Barry Venables said yesterday WP
was used to obscure troop deployments and also to
"fire at the enemy". He added: "It burns ... It's an
incendiary weapon. That is what it does."

Why the two embassies have issued statements denying
that WP was used is unclear. However, there have been
previous examples of US officials issuing incorrect
statements about the use of incendiary weapons.
Earlier this year, British Defence Minister Adam
Ingram was forced to apologise to MPs after informing
them that the US had not used an updated form of
napalm in Iraq. He said he had been misled by US

Napalm was used in several instances during the
initial invasion. Colonel Randolph Alles, commander of
Marine Air Group 11, remarked during the initial
invasion of Iraq in 2003: "The generals love napalm -
it has a big psychological effect."

In his letter, Ambassador Tuttle claims there is a
distinction between napalm and the 500lb Mk-77
firebombs he says were dropped - even though experts
say they are virtually identical. The only difference
is that the petrol used in traditional napalm has been
replaced in the newer bombs by jet fuel.

Since the RAI broadcast, there have been calls for an
inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the battle
of Fallujah. The International Committee of the Red
Cross (ICRC) has also repeated its call to "all
fighters to take every feasible precaution to spare
civilians and to respect the principles of distinction
and proportionality in all operations".

There have also been claims that in the minutiae of
the argument about the use of WP, a broader truth is
being missed. Kathy Kelly, a campaigner with the
anti-war group Voices of the Wilderness, said: "If the
US wants to promote security for this generation and
the next, it should build relationships with these
countries. If the US uses conventional or
non-conventional weapons, in civilian neighourhoods,
that melt people's bodies down to the bone, it will
leave these people seething. We should think on this
rather than arguing about whether we can squeak such
weapons past the Geneva Conventions and international


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