November 17, 2005
US finally admits using white phosphorus in Fallujah - and beyond. Iraqis investigate if civilians were targeted with deadly chemical
The Iraqi government is to investigate the United States military's use
of white phosphorus shells during the battle of Fallujah - an inquiry
that could reveal whether American forces breached a fundamental
international weapons treaty.
Iraq's acting Human Rights minister, Narmin Othman, said last night that a
team would be dispatched to Fallujah to try to ascertain conclusively
whether civilians had been killed or injured by the incendiary weapon. The
use of white phosphorus (WP) and other incendiary weapons such as napalm
against civilians is prohibited.
The announcement came as John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence,
faced mounting calls for an inquiry into the use of WP by British forces as
well as what Britain knew about its deployment by American troops. Mr Reid
said that he would look into the matter.
The move by the Iraqi government and the growing concern at Westminster
follows the Pentagon's confirmation to The Independent earlier this
week that WP had been used during the battle of Fallujah last November and
the presentation of persuasive evidence that civilians had been among the
The fresh controversy over Fallujah, which has raged for a full 12 months,
was initially sparked last week by a documentary by the Italian state
broadcaster, RAI, which claimed there were numerous civilian casualties. A
Pentagon spokesman said yesterday he would "not be surprised" if
WP had been used by US forces elsewhere in Iraq.
Lt-Col Barry Venable said the incendiary shells were a regular part of the
troops' munitions. "I would not rule out the possibility that it has
been used in other locations." The Pentagon's admission of WP's use -
it can burn a person down to the bone - has proved to be a huge
embarrassment to some elements of the US government.
In a letter to this newspaper, the American ambassador to London, Robert
Tuttle, claimed that US forces "do not use napalm or WP as weapons"
Confronted with the Pentagon's admission, an embassy spokesperson said Mr
Tuttle would not be commenting further and "all questions on WP"
should be referred to the Pentagon. The US embassy in Rome had issued a
The size or scale of the inquiry to be undertaken by the Iraqi government is
unclear, and it is not known when its investigators will arrive in Fallujah.
An official with the human rights ministry said that while it was also not
known how long the inquiry would take, "the people of Fallujah will be
fully consulted". The Pentagon says the use of incendiary weapons
against military targets is not prohibited.
But the article two, protocol III of the 1980 UN Convention on Certain
Weapons bans their use against civilians.
Perhaps of crucial importance to the Iraqi investigators, the treaty also
restricts their use against military targets "inside a concentration of
civilians except when such military objective is clearly separated from the
concentration of civilians".
Mr Reid confirmed yesterday that British troops had used WP in Iraq, though
he said the shells had only been used to make smoke to obscure troops
movements, which experts say is their primary function.
"Neither it nor any other munitions are used against civilians. It is
not a chemical weapon," he said. Speaking at a Nato training exercise
in Germany, where he was visiting British troops bound for Afghanistan, Mr
Reid said the US's use of WP was a "matter for the US".
However, last week Mr Reid indicated that he would raise the issues
contained within the RAI documentary if presented with evidence.
But last night MPs were openly dismissive of Mr Reid's comments and called
for an inquiry, saying they had previously been misled about the US's use of
napalm in Iraq. The US had drawn a distinction between conventional napalm
and updated Mk 77 firebombs, which experts say are virtually identical.
Mike Gapes, the Labour chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee,
said: "I think there is an issue here about whether the chemical
weapons convention should be strengthened to include this particular
substance because it is defined as an incendiary not a chemical weapon,
therefore it is excluded from certain definitions."
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "
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." So far, the fall-out in the US over the
revelation has been minimal. But the former president Bill Clinton yesterday
told students at the American University of Dubai that he did not agree with
invasion of Iraq.
The battle of Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold, took place over two weeks
last November. It led to the displacement of 300,000 people. Reports from
refugee camps and from an Iraqi doctor who stayed in the city during the
fighting suggest numerous civilians suffered burns and "melting skin"
. Photographs show rows of bodies charred almost beyond recognition.
Chemical legitimately used or a WMD?
What is white phosphorus?
White phosphorus is a highly flammable incendiary material which ignites
when exposed to oxygen, and will burn human skin until all the oxygen is
used up. A doctor from Fallujah described victims in the US siege "who
had their skin melted".
White phosphorus, known as WP or Willy Pete in the military, flares in
spectacular bursts with a yellow flame when fired from artillery shells and
produces dense white smoke. It is used as a smokescreen for troop movements
and to illuminate a battlefield.
Is it a chemical weapon?
No. White phosphorus has thermal properties which burn by heating everything
around it, rather than chemical properties which attack the body's life
systems . It therefore does not fall under the 1993 Chemical Weapons
Convention. But protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons
bans its use as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations.
So what is all the fuss about?
The US ambassador to London, Robert Tuttle, said in a letter to The
Independent that "US forces do not use napalm or phosphorus as a
weapon. " The US position was that white phosphorus used as a
smokescreen was legitimate - a position outlined by John Reid, the Defence
But a Pentagon statement on Tuesday appears to have shifted the argument. It
said that US troops had used the white phosphorus as a weapon against
insurgents. The State Department meanwhile corrected a statement, according
to which white phosphorus was "fired into the air to illuminate enemy
positions at night, not at enemy fighters". Now the argument focuses on
whether those being targeted were insurgents or civilians, and, of course,
in a place like Fallujah, this grey area gives the US more of a get-out
Humanitarian law distinguishes between combatants and non-combatants. If the
white phosphorus was used against insurgents they qualify as combatants and
there has been no protocol breach.
Both the US and the UK have signed the convention, but Washington declared
at the time of the signing of protocol III in 1995 that its military
doctrine would abide by the protocol's provisions. These stipulate that the
military distinguishes between military and civilian targets.
If it turns out that civilians were killed, what legal recourse is there?
If an Iraqi investigation provides evidence that civilians were killed by
white phosphorus as a weapon, there is no recourse under the Conventional
However, the 1977 first protocol to the Geneva Conventions could be invoked.
The United States has signed but not ratified the protocol which relates to
the 4th Convention which considers the treatment of civilians.
Article 35 of the protocol makes it clear that the use and methods of use of
"weapons of warfare are not unlimited." Any weapon or use of
weapon that causes "superfluous or unnecessary suffering" is
outlawed. The indiscriminate use of phosphorus on a civilian population
would be covered.
Breaches of the Geneva Conventions are brought by individual countries and
are usually heard by the United Nations at Security Council level, or in the
International Court of Justice.
Peter Carter QC, an expert in international law and chairman of the Bar's
human rights committee, said the latest US admissions raised serious
concerns about whether white phosphorus was indiscriminately used against
civilians. He called for an independent inquiry, possibly through the United
Nations, into the use of white phosphorus in Iraq.
Why has all this come out so long after the Fallujah siege?
An Italian television documentary last week, accused the US of using white
phosphorus in a "massive and indiscriminate way" against civilians
This was denied by the Pentagon, but witnesses in the US military's Field
Artillery magazine described firing '"shake and bake" missions at
insurgents and high explosive shells to "take them out". The
Independent's coverage of the RAI documentary and fallout prompted a letter
from Ambassador Tuttle.
What does the US ambassador say now?
No comment. He referred all questions to the Pentagon.
Anne Penketh and Robert Verkaik
Widespread reports during the initial US-led invasion in March 2003
suggested marines had dropped incendiary bombs over the Tigris river and the
Saddam canal on the way to Baghdad.
33 civilians, including many children, were reportedly killed in a US
cluster bomb attack on Hilla, south of Baghdad. Reports of attacks on Basra
were also widespread.
Coalition troops were reported to have used WP indiscriminately against
civilians and insurgents during the Fallujah offensive of November 2004.
What the US said
The Pentagon denied reports it had used napalm, saying it had last used the
weapon in 1993 and destroyed its last batch in 2001. "We don't even
have that in our arsenal."
General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said coalition
forces dropped nearly 1,500 cluster bombs during the war and only 26 fell
within 1,500ft of civilian areas.
"[WP was used] very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination. They were
fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy
fighters." US State Department
How the UK backed them up
"The US have confirmed to us they have not used Mk 77 firebombs,
essentially napalm canisters, in Iraq at any time." Adam Ingram, Armed
Forces minister, January 2004
The MoD said it supported the use of cluster bombs against legitimate
military targets to protect British troops and civilians, insisting care was
taken to avoid populated areas.
"Use of phosphorus by the US is a matter for the US," Tony
Blair's spokesman said yesterday.
How the US came clean
It took five months for the US to admit its marines had used Mk 77 firebombs
(a close relative of napalm) in the invasion. The Pentagon said their
functions were "remarkably similar".
General Myers admitted: "In some cases, we hit those targets knowing
there would be a chance of collateral damage." It was "unfortunate"
that "we had to make these choices".
Pentagon spokesman Lt-Col Barry Venable said this week that WP had been
used, "to fire at the enemy" in Iraq. "It burns... it's an
incendiary weapon. That is what it does."
How the UK came clean
"First of all they didn't use napalm. They used a firebomb. It doesn't
stick to your skin like napalm, it doesn't have the horrible effects of
that. " John Reid, Defence Secretary
Adam Ingram, Armed Forces minister, said: "There were troops [and]
equipment in and around built-up areas, therefore bombs were used to take
out the threat to our troops."
The Government maintains it used WP in Iraq only to lay smoke screens. "
We do not use white phosphorus against civilians," the Defence
Secretary John Reid said.