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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Criticized Over Use of Phosphorus

WASHINGTON -- On Nov. 8, Italian public television showed a documentary renewing persistent charges that the United States had used white phosphorus rounds, incendiary munitions that the film incorrectly called chemical weapons, against Iraqis in Fallujah last year. Many civilians died of burns, the report said.

The half-hour film was riddled with errors and exaggerations, according to U.S. officials and independent military experts. But the U.S. State Department and Pentagon have so bungled their response -- making and then withdrawing incorrect statements about what American troops really did when they fought a pitched battle against insurgents in the rebellious city -- that the charges have produced dozens of stories in the foreign news media and on web sites suggesting that the United States used banned weapons and tried to cover it up.

The Iraqi government has announced an investigation, and a UN spokeswoman has expressed concern.

"It's discredited the American military without any basis in fact," said John Pike, an expert on weapons who runs GlobalSecurity.org, an independent clearinghouse for military information. He said the "stupidity and incompetence" of official comments had fueled suspicions of a cover-up.

Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit organization that researches nuclear issues, was more cautious. In light of the issues raised since the film was shown, he said, the Defense Department, and perhaps an independent body, should review whether U.S. use of white phosphorus had been consistent with international weapons conventions.

At a time when opposition to the war is growing, the white phosphorus issue has reinforced the worst suspicions about U.S. actions.

The documentary was quickly posted as a video file on web sites worldwide. Bloggers trumpeted its allegations. Foreign newspapers and television reported the charges and rebuttals, with headlines like "The Big White Lie" in The Independent of London.

Officials now acknowledge that the government's initial response was sluggish and misinformed. "There's so much inaccurate information out there now that I'm not sure we can unscrew it," Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable, a Defense Department spokesman who has handled many inquiries about white phosphorus, said Friday.

The State Department declined to comment for the record, but an official there said privately that the episode was a public relations failure.

The Italian documentary, titled "Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre," included gruesome images of victims of the fighting in the city in November 2004. American and Iraqi troops recaptured the city from insurgents, in battles that destroyed an estimated 60 percent of the buildings.

The film incorrectly referred to white phosphorus shells -- a munition of nearly every military commonly used to create smoke screens or fires -- as banned chemical weapons. It showed disfigured bodies and suggested that hot-burning white phosphorus had melted the flesh while leaving clothing intact.

Military veterans familiar with white phosphorus, known to soldiers as "WP" or "Willie Pete," said it could deliver terrible burns, since an exploding round scatters bits of the compound that burst into flames on exposure to air and can burn into flesh, penetrating to the bone.

But they said white phosphorus would have burned victims' clothing. The bodies in the film appeared to be decomposed, they said.

In their first comments after the Nov. 8 broadcast, U.S. officials made some of those points. But they relied on an inaccurate State Department fact sheet posted on the Internet last December, when similar accusations first surfaced.

The fact sheet said U.S. forces had used white phosphorus shells "very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes," and were fired "to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters." The United States stuck to that position last spring after Iraq's Health Ministry claimed it had proof of civilian casualties from the weapons.

After the Italian documentary was broadcast, the U.S. ambassadors to Italy, Ronald Spogli, and to Britain, Robert Tuttle, echoed the stock defense, denying that white phosphorus munitions had been used against enemy fighters, let alone civilians. At home, on the radio program "Democracy Now," Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, said, "I know of no cases where people were deliberately targeted by the use of white phosphorus."

But those statements were incorrect. Firsthand accounts by U.S. officers in two military journals note that white phosphorus munitions had been aimed directly at insurgents in Fallujah to flush them out. War critics and journalists soon discovered those articles.

In the face of such evidence, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration made an embarrassing public reversal last week. Pentagon spokesmen admitted that white phosphorus had been used directly against Iraqi insurgents. "It's perfectly legitimate to use this stuff against enemy combatants," Colonel Venable said Friday.