White phosphorus use in Iraq

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During military combat operations in Fallujah, Iraq, white phosphorus munitions were used by United States military forces as an incendiary weapon and as an obscurant. The United States denied allegations that white phosphorus was used as a weapon against civilians, stating that it was only used to target insurgents.[1]

White phosphorus[edit]

Main article: White phosphorus
White phosphorus sample

White phosphorus is made from a common allotrope of the chemical element phosphorus that is used in smoke, tracer, illumination and incendiary munitions.[2] Other common names include "WP", and the slang term "Willie Pete," which is dated from its use in Vietnam, and is still sometimes used in military jargon.[3] As an incendiary weapon, white phosphorus burns fiercely and can set cloth, fuel, ammunition and other combustibles on fire, and cause serious burns or death.

In addition to its offensive capabilities, white phosphorus is also a highly efficient smoke-producing agent, burning quickly and causing an instant bank of smoke. As a result, smoke-producing white phosphorus munitions are very common, particularly as smoke grenades for infantry, loaded in grenade launchers on tanks and other armored vehicles, or as part of the ammunition allotment for artillery or mortars. These create smoke screens to mask movement, position or the origin of fire from the enemy. White phosphorus is used in bombs, artillery, mortars, and short-range missiles which burst into burning flakes of phosphorus upon impact.

The use of white phosphorus as an obscurant is legal, as well as use as an incendiary weapon against military targets that are not in close proximity to civilians or civilian property. Article 1 of Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons defines an incendiary weapon as 'any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target'. The same protocol also prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against civilians (already forbidden by the Geneva Conventions) or against military targets in close proximity to civilians or civilian property.

Use in Fallujah[edit]

In April 2004, during the First Battle of Fallujah, Darrin Mortenson of California's North County Times reported that white phosphorus was used as an incendiary weapon. Embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Mortenson described a Marine mortar team using a mixture of white phosphorus and high explosives to shell a cluster of buildings where insurgents had been spotted throughout the week.[4]

In November 2004, during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Washington Post reporters embedded with Task Force 2-2, Regimental Combat Team 7, wrote on November 9, 2004 that "Some artillery guns fired white phosphorus (WP) rounds that create a screen of fire that cannot be extinguished with water." [5] Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorus burns.[5]

On November 9, 2005 the Italian state-run broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana S.p.A. aired a documentary titled "Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre", alleging that the United States' used white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah causing insurgents and civilians to be killed or injured by chemical burns. The filmmakers further claimed that the United States used incendiary MK-77 bombs in violation of Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, quoted in the documentary, white phosphorus is permitted for use as an illumination device and as a weapon with regard to heat energy, but not permitted as an offensive weapon with regard to its toxic chemical properties.[6][7] The documentary also included footage which purported to be of white phosphorus being fired from helicopters over Fallujah. It also quoted journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had been in Fallujah, as a testimony. [8]

On November 15, 2005, U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable confirmed to the BBC that white phosphorus had been used as an incendiary antipersonnel weapon in Fallujah. Venable stated "When you have enemy forces that are in covered positions that your high explosive artillery rounds are not having an impact on and you wish to get them out of those positions, one technique is to fire a white phosphorus round into the position because the combined effects of the fire and smoke - and in some case the terror brought about by the explosion on the ground - will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives."[9][10]

On November 16, 2005, BBC News reported that an article published in the March–April 2005 issue of Field Artillery, a U.S. Army magazine, noted that white phosphorus had been used during the battle. According to the article written by a captain, a first lieutenant, and a sergeant, "WP [White Phosphorus] proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosives]. We fired "shake and bake" missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out."[6] BBC News noted that the article had been discovered by bloggers after the US ambassador in London, Robert Holmes Tuttle, stated that US forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons.[6]

On November 22, 2005, the Iraqi government stated it would investigate the use of white phosphorus in the battle of Fallujah.[11]

On November 30, 2005, General Peter Pace stated that white phosphorus munitions were a "legitimate tool of the military" used to illuminate targets and create smokescreens, saying "It is not a chemical weapon. It is an incendiary. And it is well within the law of war to use those weapons as they're being used, for marking and for screening".[1]

Use in Halabja[edit]

White phosphorus was used by Saddam Hussein during the Halabja poison gas attack. According to an undated ANSA article quoted by an RAI documentary, on the morning of March 16, 1988, the Iraqi Air Force bombed Halabja several times with a chemical cocktail of yperite, tabun, VX, napalm and white phosphorus." White phosphorus had not been previously mentioned in other reports on Halabja, but the use of napalm was commonly reported.[12]


  1. ^ a b "BBC NEWS: US general defends phosphorus use". BBC News. November 30, 2005. Retrieved December 13, 2005. 
  2. ^ "Pyrotechnics, Explosives, & Fireworks". Retrieved 4 December 2005. 
  3. ^ Paul Reynolds (16 November 2005). "White phosphorus: weapon on the edge". BBC News. 
  4. ^ Mortenson, Darrin. Violence subsides for Marines in Fallujah, North County Times, April 10, 2004
  5. ^ a b Spinner, Jackie; Vick, Karl; Fekeiki, Omar (November 10, 2004). "U.S. Forces Battle Into Heart of Fallujah". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 4, 2005. 
  6. ^ a b c Reynolds, Paul (16 November 2005). "OPCW Spokesman Peter Kaiser elucidates the OPCW position on white phosphorus". BBC News. Retrieved 19 May 2011. 
  7. ^ OPCW agrees with US Military that use of white phosphorus as incendiary agent is not prohibited[dead link]
  8. ^ "INCHIESTA - IRAQ, THE HIDDEN MASSACRE - RAINEWS24". Retrieved December 4, 2005. 
  9. ^ "Independent Online Edition". The Independent (London). November 16, 2005. Retrieved December 4, 2005. 
  10. ^ "U.S. official admits phosphorus used as weapon in Iraq". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 16 November 2005. Retrieved 19 May 2011. 
  11. ^ "White Phosphorus In Iraq". [dead link]
  12. ^ MK-77

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