November 16, 2005

US defends use of white phosphorus

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Wednesday
acknowledged using incendiary white-phosphorus munitions in a
2004 counterinsurgency offensive in the Iraqi city of Falluja,
but defended their use as legal.

Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, said the
U.S. military had not used the highly flammable weapons against
civilians, contrary to an Italian state television report this
month which said the weapons were used against men, women and
children in Falluja who were burned to the bone.

"We categorically deny that claim," Venable said.

"It's part of our conventional-weapons inventory and we use
it like we use any other conventional weapon," added Bryan
Whitman, another Pentagon spokesman.

Venable said white phosphorus is not outlawed or banned by
any convention. However, a protocol to the 1980 Convention on
Conventional Weapons forbids using incendiary weapons against
civilians or against military targets amid concentrations of

The United States did not sign the protocol.

White phosphorus munitions are primarily used by the U.S.
military to make smoke screens and mark targets, but also as an
incendiary weapon, the Pentagon said. They are not considered
chemical weapons. The substance ignites easily in air at
temperatures of about 86 F (30 C), and its fire can be
difficult to extinguish.

U.S. forces used the white phosphorus during a major
offensive launched by Marines in Falluja, about 30 miles (50
km) west of Baghdad, to flush out insurgents. The battle in
November of last year involved some of the toughest urban
fighting of the 2-1/2-year war.

Venable said that in the Falluja battle, "U.S. forces used
white phosphorous both in its classic screening mechanism and
... when they encountered insurgents who were in foxholes and
other covered positions who they could not dislodge any other

He said the soldiers employed what they call a
"shake-and-bake" technique of using white phosphorus shells to
flush enemies out of hiding then using high explosives to kill

The Italian documentary showed images of bodies recovered
after the Falluja offensive, which it said proved the use of
white phosphorus against civilians.

"We don't target any civilians with any of our weapons. And
to suggest that U.S. forces were targeting civilians with these
weapons would simply be wrong," Whitman said.