U.S. criticized for use of incendiary in Iraq


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Omar Ibrahim Abdullah went for a walk to get away from the heavy fighting in Fallujah a little over a year ago and, he says, came across a sight that he has been unable to banish from his memory.

The United States had mounted a full-scale offensive in the rebel-controlled Iraqi city, and Abdullah said he was eager to escape the Askari district, where he lived. He walked south toward the Euphrates River and stumbled on dozens of burned bodies that he said were colored black and red.

The corpses, he insisted, had suffered burns from the U.S. military's use of an incendiary chemical known as white phosphorus.

The Pentagon and other U.S. officials at first denied, and later admitted, that troops had used white phosphorus against insurgents in Fallujah during that fiercely fought campaign. Its use became public because of questions raised by an Italian television documentary Nov. 8, which alleged that civilians had been targeted "indiscriminately" and that hundreds had died.

But even though U.S. officials have admitted using the substance against enemy fighters, they have denied the allegations of Fallujah residents such as Abdullah that its use was widespread and civilians were among those killed.

"We don't use munitions of any kind against innocent civilians," Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said. "In accordance with all established conventions, [white phosphorus] can be used against enemy combatants."

Nicknamed "Willie Pete" by troops, white phosphorus is a dangerous chemical that burns on contact with oxygen. The military employs it primarily to illuminate battlefields and provide smokescreens. But the only way it can be extinguished is by shutting off its air supply. When it comes in contact with humans, it will burn through flesh to bone.

Incendiaries are considered particularly inhumane weapons under international treaty, and a 1980 United Nations convention limits their use. The U.S. has not signed the part of the convention that deals with incendiary weapons. Nevertheless, it largely has avoided using incendiary weapons since the Vietnam War and destroyed the last of its napalm arsenal four years ago.

In the 1990s, in fact, the U.S. condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for alleged use of "white phosphorus chemical weapons" against Kurdish rebels and residents of Irbil and Dohuk.

In regard to a war the U.S. said it fought partly because of fears that Hussein would employ chemical or other nonconventional weapons, some critics say the use of white phosphorus is contrary to the spirit of U.S. aims.

"An incendiary weapon cannot be thought of just like any conventional weapon," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. "There are rules that apply, and we have to make sure that they are being followed for various reasons."

The question is whether its use in November 2004 against insurgents fighting in a city that most, but not all, civilian inhabitants had fled violates the Inhumane Weapons Convention, to which the United States is a party.

On the streets of Fallujah, the common story is that the U.S. used incendiary bombs against civilians, with Iraqi doctors and the local human rights organization pointing to scores of burned corpses as evidence.

But there has been no independent verification. U.S. officials have in the past accused doctors in Fallujah of lying about such topics, because, the U.S. officials say, the doctors are loyal to or intimidated by insurgents. Blackened corpses seen on the Italian documentary, for instance, might have been burned by conventional explosions or might result from decomposition, some viewers have argued.

Pentagon officials say that white phosphorus was used by U.S. troops for a number of reasons during the offensive in Fallujah.

"It was used to mask and obscure U.S. troop movements, and to flush out dug-in insurgents from spider holes and trenches," said Maj. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman. "It was lawfully used against legitimate military targets."

When stories first surfaced last year that the U.S. military had used white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon in Fallujah, the State Department flatly denied the allegations - denials from Pentagon and State Department officials that continued until only weeks ago.

John Daniszewski and Mark Mazzetti write for the Los Angeles Times.

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