U.S. Denies Using White Phosphorus on Civilians

The U.S. military has denied charges that it used white phosphorus against civilian targets in Falluja last November.

U.S. denies using white phosphorus on Iraqi civilians (Reuters)

The U.S. military in Iraq denied a report shown on Italian state television on Tuesday saying U.S. forces used incendiary white phosphorus against civilians in a November 2004 offensive on the Iraqi town of Falluja. It confirmed, however, that U.S. forces had dropped MK 77 firebombs — which a documentary on Italian state-run broadcaster RAI compared to napalm — against military targets in Iraq in March and April 2003.

The documentary showed images of bodies recovered after a November 2004 offensive by U.S. troops on the town of Falluja, which it said proved the use of white phosphorus against men, women and children who were burnt to the bone. “I do know that white phosphorus was used,” said Jeff Englehart in the RAI documentary, which identified him as a former soldier in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division in Iraq. “Burnt bodies. Burnt children and burnt women,” said Englehart, who RAI said had taken part in the Falluja offensive. “White phosphorus kills indiscriminately.”

The U.S. Marines in Baghdad described white phosphorus as a “conventional munition” used primarily for smoke screens and target marking. It denied using it against civilians. “Suggestions that U.S. forces targeted civilians with these weapons are simply wrong,” U.S. Marine Major Tim Keefe said in an e-mail to Reuters. “Had the producers of the documentary bothered to ask us for comment, we would have certainly told them that the premise of the programme was erroneous.” He said U.S. forces do not use any chemical weapons in Iraq. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said earlier on Tuesday he did not recall white phosphorus being used in Falluja.

An incendiary device, white phosphorus is also used to light up combat areas. The use of incendiary weapons against civilians has been banned by the Geneva Convention since 1980. The United States did not sign the relevant protocol to the convention, a U.N. official in New York said.


“The only instance of MK 77 use during (Operation Iraqi Freedom) occurred in March/April 2003 when U.S. Marines employed several bombs against legitimate military targets,” Keefe said. He said the chemical composition of the MK 77 firebomb is different from that of napalm.

RAI posted a copy of the document [online].

Let’s hope this one is resolved quickly. Given that the use of WP against military personnel is not a violation of international law, one presumes that the denial of any such use is a good sign that they were not used against civilians.


Fallajuh operation coverage from 2004:

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    I know we never signed on to the set of Geneva Conventions that banned this, but what are the current military regs regarding WP use? If it was used on live targets, civilian or otherwise, would that have actually broken any US laws?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Not that I’m aware of. When I was a field artillery officer (1988-92), WP was being trained as I described it in this morning’s post–as an obscuration tool first but also as an incendiary round.

  3. Ronald says:

    The whole idea that there were any civilians in Fallujah is a myth. The whole place is filled with terrorists. Any civilians who were there were undoubtedly terrorist-lovers.

    Anyone who criticizes US bombing of these places is all wrong. Ari Fleisher had it right–the Iraqis themselves could have saved everybody a whole lot of hassle with one bullet in Saadam’s head. They weren’t up to the task, but luckily for freedom’s sake, GW wasn’t going to let these terrorists threaten us any longer!

  4. Bithead says:

    Funny, how this lie shows up so quickly after the story of Jimmy Massey got shot down, isn’t it?

    Almost like this is ‘plan B’.

  5. Elmo says:

    is a good sign that they were not used against civilians

    I never for even the tiniest moment believed. There will always be deaths in war. Even those not actively fighting it. Whence war stops …. seems only a dream.

    The collective beating down of that which is good, that which is right. By all and sundry, is troubling. Mistakes in combat have been, and will be made. But they are not to be confused with those we seek to send to Mo’s valhalla.

    The cultural and societal mores of those we battle, breathe no regard for the truth. I don’t know why anyone would even bother?

  6. just stopping by says:

    legion, the Geneva Conventions do not ban use of WP. They ban use of incendiaries against civilian targets.
    Fallujah was not a civilian target.

  7. bob bobberson says:

    I’m active duty military and this crap scares me to death. I don’t know what the hell to belive any more. The more I read about stuff like this the more I get scared. The more I investigate the more I get angry. I used to be against the anthrax vaccine after all the hours of reading I’ve done(both pro and con), but that was before I realized a war with syria was inevitable and that they have the most developed biological and chemical weapons program in the middle east.

    I’m a rarity folks. Most people I serve with belive every inch or just don’t care enough to read the news and ask important questions. Then again, I don’t get paid to think, so I guess I’ll just go back to my PS2 and 6pack. Kill em all.

  8. adam says:

    Yet the army itself says that they DID use white phosphorous:

    So did the embedded reporters, and from the descriptions in both places it is hard to believe civilians weren’t hit (thought they may not have beeen targets)

  9. Andrew Milner says:

    By commiting war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Bush administration is rapidly moving the US of A towards pariah nation status. And it’s the ordinary US citizen that will take the flack; in Europe, Americans are already claiming to be Canadian. Don’t do the crime if you can’t wear the slime.