Defense of Phosphorus Use Turns Into Damage Control
By SCOTT SHANE
Published: November 21, 2005
WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 - 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 Falluja last year. Many civilians
died of burns, the report said.
The half-hour film was riddled with errors and exaggerations, according to
United States officials and independent military experts. But the 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 Americans used banned weapons and tried
to cover it up.
The Iraqi government has announced an investigation, and a United Nations
spokeswoman has expressed concern.
"It's discredited the American military without any basis in fact," said
John E. 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.
"The story most people around the world have is that the Americans are up to
their old tricks - committing atrocities and lying about it," Mr. Pike said.
"And that's completely incorrect."
Daryl G. 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 American use of white
phosphorus had been consistent with international weapons conventions.
"There are legitimate questions that need to be asked," Mr. Kimball said.
Given the history of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons in Iraq, he
said, "we have to be extremely careful" to comply with treaties and the
rules of war.
At a time when opposition to the war is growing, the white phosphorus issue
has reinforced the worst suspicions about American 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," Lt. Col. 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 "Falluja: The Hidden Massacre," included
gruesome images of victims of the fierce 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.
Opening with prolonged shots of Vietnamese children and villages burned by
American use of napalm in 1972, the film suggested an equivalence between
Mr. Hussein's use of chemical weapons in the 1980's and the use of white
phosphorus by the American-led forces.
It incorrectly referred to white phosphorus shells - a munition of nearly
every military commonly used to create smoke screens or fires - as banned
The film showed disfigured bodies and suggested that hot-burning white
phosphorus had melted the flesh while leaving clothing intact. Sigfrido
Ranucci, the television correspondent who made the documentary, said in an
interview this month that he had received the photographs from an Iraqi
doctor. "We are not talking about corpses like the normal deaths in war," he
Military veterans familiar with white phosphorus, known to soldiers as "W.
P." 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, American officials made
some of those points. But they relied on an inaccurate State Department fact
sheet first posted on the Web last December, when similar accusations first
The fact sheet said American forces had used white phosphorus shells "very
sparingly in Falluja, for illumination purposes, and were fired "to
illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters."
The Americans 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 American ambassadors to
Italy, Ronald P. Spogli, and to Britain, Robert H. Tuttle, echoed the stock
defense, denying that white phosphorus munitions had been used against enemy
fighters, let alone civilians. At home, on the public radio program
"Democracy Now," Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, an American 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 American officers
in two military journals note that white phosphorus munitions had been aimed
directly at insurgents in Falluja to flush them out. War critics and
journalists soon discovered those articles.
In the face of such evidence, the Bush 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.
While he said he could not rule out that white phosphorus hit some
civilians, "U.S. and coalition forces took extraordinary measures to prevent
civilian casualties in Falluja."
Ian Fisher contributed reporting from Rome for this article.