U.S. Used “Chemical Weapons” in Falluja
The blogosphere is abuzz with a report in The Independent that there is “new evidence” that U.S. military used “chemical weapons” during its assault on Falluja last year. The problem is that the weapons in question are not “chemical weapons” in the usual sense of the word and that we knew about this contemporaneously.
Powerful new evidence emerged yesterday that the United States dropped massive quantities of white phosphorus on the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the attack on the city in November 2004, killing insurgents and civilians with the appalling burns that are the signature of this weapon.
Ever since the assault, which went unreported by any Western journalists, rumours have swirled that the Americans used chemical weapons on the city.
On 10 November last year, the Islam Online website wrote: “US troops are reportedly using chemical weapons and poisonous gas in its large-scale offensive on the Iraqi resistance bastion of Fallujah, a grim reminder of Saddam Hussein’s alleged gassing of the Kurds in 1988.”
The website quoted insurgent sources as saying: “The US occupation troops are gassing resistance fighters and confronting them with internationally banned chemical weapons.”
In December the US government formally denied the reports, describing them as “widespread myths”. “Some news accounts have claimed that US forces have used ‘outlawed’ phosphorus shells in Fallujah,” the USinfo website said. “Phosphorus shells are not outlawed. US forces have used them very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes.
“They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters.”
But now new information has surfaced, including hideous photographs and videos and interviews with American soldiers who took part in the Fallujah attack, which provides graphic proof that phosphorus shells were widely deployed in the city as a weapon.
First, this ain’t news:
U.S. drives into heart of Fallujah – Army, Marines face rockets and bombs in battle to take insurgents’ stronghold (SF Chronicle, 10 Nov. 2004)
U.S. Marines said American forces had taken control today of 70 percent of Fallujah in the third day of a major offensive to retake the insurgent stronghold.
Some of the heaviest damage apparently was incurred Monday night by air and artillery attacks that coincided with the entry of ground troops into the city. U.S. warplanes dropped eight 2,000-pound bombs on the city overnight, and artillery boomed throughout the night and into the morning. “Usually we keep the gloves on,” said Army Capt. Erik Krivda, of Gaithersburg, Md., the senior officer in charge of the 1st Infantry Division’s Task Force 2-2 tactical operations command center. “For this operation, we took the gloves off.”
Some artillery guns fired white phosphorous rounds that create a screen of fire that cannot be extinguished with water. Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorous burns. Kamal Hadeethi, a physician at a regional hospital, said, “The corpses of the mujahedeen which we received were burned, and some corpses were melted.” [emphasis added]
Secondly, while white phosphorous is a chemical it isn’t considered a “chemical weapon.” Indeed, despite the very long history of its use it is not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention or any other treaty :
White phosphorus is not banned by any treaty. The United States retains its ability to employ incendiaries to hold high-priority military targets at risk in a manner consistent with the principle of proportionality that governs the use of all weapons under existing law. The use of white phosphorus or fuel air explosives are not prohibited or restricted by Protocol II of the Certain Conventional Weapons Convention (CCWC), the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects.
White phosphorus is a common allotrope of the chemical element phosphorus which has found extensive military application as a smoke-screening agent and secondarily as an incendiary weapon. It is commonly referred to in military jargon as “WP” or “white phos”. The Vietnam War era slang Willie Pete, Whiskey Pete or Wiley P is still occasionally heard.
In its role as an incendiary weapon:
It is commonly believed that white phosphorus ignites spontaneously on contact with air at room temperature. This is not quite true; the autoignition temperature is actually about 30Ã‚°C in humid air, and slightly higher in dry air. However at slightly lower temperatures WP will slowly surface oxidise, effectively smouldering, and will often warm up to the point where it will ignite. At any rate, the slightest degree of friction will easily ignite it, and it is practically guaranteed to be ignited by a burster charge, so for all intents and purposes it is pyrophoric.
Because of this, WP has long had a secondary role as an incendiary, either directly or more usually as a “first fire” material. Contrary to another popular myth, it does not burn particularly fiercely, especially in comparison to other incendiaries like thermite. As an incendiary, it is most effective against highly flammable targets like very dry vegetation or petrol, oils and lubricants. However a WP fire does have the special difficulty that if extinguished with water, even to the point of being quite cold, it may reignite later when it dries out and exposes the WP to the air again.
The shell in question:
M825 white phosphorus. The M825 WP projectile is an FA-delivered 155-mm base-ejection projectile designed to produce a smoke screen on the ground for a duration of 5 to 15 minutes. It consists of two major components–the projectile carrier and the payload. The projectile carrier delivers the payload to the target. The payload consists of 116 WP-saturated felt wedges. The smoke screen is produced when a predetermined fuze action causes ejection of the payload from the projectile. After ejection, the WP-saturated felt wedges in the payload fall to the ground in an elliptical pattern. Each wedge then becomes a point or source of smoke. The M825 is ballistically similar to the M483A1 (DPICM) family of projectiles.
Willie Pete is a militarily useful weapon in its capacity as a smoke-screening agent. Its secondary application as an incendiary weapon is more questionable; it certainly blurs the line with traditional chemical weapons such as mustard gas and other blister agents, which are banned. Further, aside from any moral qualms, their use in a counter-insurgency operation is debatable from a tactical standpoint. But let’s not pretend this is some secret plot by the U.S. that has just been uncovered. The U.S. openly maintains an arsenal of WP shells and reported that they had used them in Falluja at the time; this isn’t a conspiracy.
Update: Juan Cole more or less agrees. He does note, however,
The use of incendiary bombs against civilian targets or concentrations of civilians with no military function is forbidden by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Although the US ratified Protocols I and II of the Convention, it does not appear to have adopted Protocol III into US law.
Even looking at Protocol III, though, one gathers the use of WP in Fallujah would be permissible.
I. 1. (b) Incendiary weapons do not include:
(i) Munitions which may have incidental incendiary effects, such as illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems;
One could argue that WP would be excluded by that provision.
1. It is prohibited in all circumstances to make the civilian population as such, individual civilians or civilian objects the object of attack by incendiary weapons.
2. It is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons.
3. It is further prohibited to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by means of incendiary weapons other than air-delivered incendiary weapons, except when such military objective is clearly separated from the concentration of civilians and all feasible precautions are taken with a view to limiting the incendiary effects to the military objective and to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.
The shells in question were delivered by indirect fire–mortars and/or artillery. The civilian population was not the principal target.
Regardless, though, Cole is right about this:
Of course, the difference between kinds of munitions can be exaggerated. It is no fun to have “conventional” arms rain down on your family from the sky.
Quite right. As military technology advances, the distinction between “conventional” and “unconventional” weapons becomes increasingly meaningless.
Fallajuh operation coverage from 2004:
Fallujah, the Morning After
Mass Offensive Launched South of Baghdad
U.S. Finds Ã¢€˜Atrocity SitesÃ¢€™ in Fallujah
Zarqawi Headquarters Captured
U.S. Marines in Fallujah Finding InsurgentsÃ¢€™ Tools of the Trade
Sarin Gas Found in Fallujah?
U.S. Helicopters Shot Down Near Fallujah
Iraqi Hostage Freed by Marines in Fallujah
Ã¢€˜Hostage SlaughterhousesÃ¢€™ Found in Fallujah
Finishing Fallujah: War, Politics, and the Media
Battle of Fallujah Underway: Operation Phantom Fury
Battle for Fallujah: Risks and Rewards
U.S. Jets Strike Fallujah With Five Raids
Assault in Falluja Is Likely, U.S. Officers Say
U.S. Warplanes Pound Insurgent Stronghold in Fallujah
U.S. Forces Retake Samarra, Fallujah Next