US use of white phosphorus in Iraq may constitute a war crime

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

A smoke and incendiary weapon

Yesterday the United States admitted using incendiary weapons containing white phosphorus during a major offensive in Fallujah. There is question, however, as to what end the use of these weapon is legal under conventions of war.

The way white phosphorus munitions are used determines if it falls in the category of chemical weapons, says Professor Paul Rodgers from the University of Bradford department of peace studies. "It is not counted under the chemical weapons convention in its normal use but, although it is a matter of legal niceties, it probably does fall into the category of chemical weapons if it is used for this kind of purpose directly against people." Professor Paul Rodgers is the writer of the book "A War on Terror: Afghanistan and After".

As reported on November 15 in the UK's Independent, according to three artillery men 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, white phosphorus was used "as a potent psychological weapon against insurgents in trench lines and spider holes...We fired 'shake and bake' [a combination of white phosphorus and explosives] missions at the insurgents using WP to flush them out and high exposive shells (HE) to take them out."

A spokesman for the US military, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, said yesterday when US admitted the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon, that "White phosphorus is a conventional munition. It is not a chemical weapon. They are not outlawed or illegal." He added that "it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants."

Robert Tuttle, the American ambassador to London, wrote "U.S. forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons," in a letter to the Independent newspaper. When confronted with the US militaries' admission, an embassy spokesperson said "all questions on WP" should be referred to the Pentagon.

Sir Menzies Campbell, Member of the British Parliament (Liberal Democrat), says: "The use of this weapon may technically have been legal, but its effects are such that it will hand a propaganda victory to the insurgency. The denial of use followed by the admission will simply convince the doubters that there was something to hide."

The Independent article concludes with a quote from Kathy Kelly of the group Voices in the Wilderness. She 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 accords.'

White phosphorus. A conventional or a chemical weapon?

Battlefield concentrations of white phosphorus gas are generally considered harmless: there are no documented cases of white phosophorus gases resulting in fatalities. However, its use as an incendiary is under question. The United States reportedly ordered civilians to evacuate areas wherein white phosphorus was going to be used.

But claims that U.S. use of white phosphorus--or 'Whiskey Pete' or 'Willy Pete', as it is called by the military--contravenes the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, are based on its prohibition of any "toxic chemical" weapons which cause "death, harm or temporary incapacitation to humans or animals through their chemical action on life processes." The fact that direct exposure to white phosphorus produces precisely such effects on humans has been substantiated by numerous sources, both medical and military. However, since the effect of white phosphorus is largely incendiary, and incendiaries are specifically not precluded, there is some ambiguity regarding the classification of white phosphorus weapons.

The Iraqi government will investigate the American use of white phosphorus munitions during the battle of Fallujah. The inquiry will try to determine whether US forces committed war crimes according to international weapons treaties.