US admits use of white phosphorus in Iraq

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A documentary aired by Italy's state-run RAI24 television has led to an admission from U.S. military of use of white phosphorous munitions during actions in Fallujah The documentary alleged the U.S.A. used the weapons in a "massive and indiscriminate way" against Iraqi civilians, but the military denies the weapons were used against citizens. Embedded Journalist Darrin Mortenson, who was with U.S. troops during the operation in Fallujah, already reported in April 2004 that a mortar team leader "directed his men to fire round after round of high explosives and white phosphorus charges into the city Friday and Saturday".

The U.S. State department initially denied that white phosphorus was used as weaponry, but Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable said white phosphorous munitions were used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants. "It was not used against civilians," he said in a Tuesday briefing. Lt. Col. Venable repeated U.S. State department statements that white phosphorous munitions are a standard field artillery element. Up until at least April 2001 it was "against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets" according to the U.S. Army Battle Book.

The Pentagon briefing directed reporters to the March-April 2005 edition of the U.S. Army's Field Artillery magazine, where veterans of the Fallujah action described their use of white phosphorous munitions to "flush [insurgents] out", and it use as a screening agent (providing smoke cover) and as "a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines."

The 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (Protocol III), which the USA is not a signatory to, disallows the use of incendiary weapons against civilian populations or air attacks against troops stationed in a civilian population center, but does not outlaw its battlefield use. General George Casey's 8 November 2004 briefing estimated the number of civilians still in Fallujah as between 20,000 and 100,000 civilians.

White phosphorous burns at temperatures near 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2760 C). It is used to start fires and can cause severe burns where it strikes humans. The Italian documentary showed photos of what it said were Iraqis who had been burned by the white phosphorous. The accepted lethal dose of white phosphorous is 1mg/kg.

The smoke raises contentions for its battlefield use. It is primarily used as a "marker", as the high temperature combustion causes "pillaring" of the smoke column. But the smoke does contain phosphoric acid and traces of unburned phosphorous, which is corrosive to human tissue (internally and externally.) The US Army Field Manual cautions "Phosphorous smoke produces phosphoric acid. Soldiers must wear respiratory protection, such as protective masks, if exposed to phosphorous smoke."

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