TCS Daily


Has the Coalition Used Chemical Weapons in Iraq?

By Scott Burgess - November 17, 2005 12:00 AM

The frenzy of the week in the blogosphere concerns the use of White Phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon at Fallujah. After initial State Department denials that did little for the American PR cause, the Pentagon has now made a matter-of-fact statement that it was indeed so used, but only against combatants, and therefore legally.

The blogospheric firestorm -- just now hitting the MSM in a significant way -- was sparked by an Italian broadcast film, purporting to be a documentary, in which the claims were first widely aired. The film consisted of interviews with participants limited to a Communist reporter, a researcher for a pacifist human rights group, two veterans turned anti-war activists, the director of a "human rights centre" based in Fallujah, and a former British back-bench MP also active in the anti-war movement. It also included supposedly damning photos and videos -- some purporting to show the horrific effects of white phosphorus bombardment upon those innocent civilians who ignored the American warnings to evacuate, issued well prior to the assault.

Unfortunately for those promoting the film's claims, its assertions are rather easily debunked. The primary evidence given for the accusation that WP was used on the bodies shown lies in the fact that the burned corpses are clad in intact clothing. However, John Pike, weapons expert at the internationally respected globalsecurity.org, has categorically stated that burns caused by white phosphorus are not consistent with bodies in undamaged clothing.

Similarly with the film's contention that WP is a "chemical weapon". It is in fact an incendiary weapon, commonly used since at least World War II. Its use as an antipersonnel weapon against combatants is not barred by any treaty -- a fact confirmed by Peter Kaiser, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the group that enforces the UN chemical weapons convention.

According to the (UK) Independent, Mr. Kaiser "said the convention permitted the use of such weapons for 'military purposes not connected with the use of chemical weapons and not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare'", and that "the burns caused by WP were thermic rather than chemical and as such [its use is] not prohibited by the treaty."

Being detrimental to the premise of the 'documentary', such considerations remain unmentioned in the video.

As the film is so easily recognizable as nothing more than crude propaganda, even someone like Guardian columnist George Monbiot, the bete noir of US Iraq policy (and much else) rejects its claims, calling it "a turkey, whose evidence that white phosphorus was fired at Iraqi troops is flimsy and circumstantial".

Those familiar with Mr. Monbiot's ouevre will not be surprised to learn that this realization doesn't prevent him from announcing that "The US used chemical weapons in Iraq" -- far from it. The Guardian columnist is quick to repeat evidence from bloggers that proves his case.

In one instance, he cites "a reporter embedded with the marines in the April 2004 siege of Falluja", who wrote about WP use in the [San Diego, California] North County Times:

"'Gun up!' Millikin yelled ... grabbing a white phosphorus round from a nearby ammo can and holding it over the tube. 'Fire!' Bogert yelled, as Millikin dropped it. The boom kicked dust around the pit as they ran through the drill again and again, sending a mixture of burning white phosphorus and high explosives they call 'shake'n'bake' into... buildings where insurgents have been spotted all week."

Incidentally, some bloggers have used this account to attempt to show indiscriminate use of WP, possibly against civilians, by US troops. Such attempts emphasize this language:

"Bogert is a mortar team leader who directed his men to fire round after round of high explosives and white phosphorus charges into the city Friday and Saturday, never knowing what the targets were or what damage the resulting explosions caused.

[...]

"They say they have never seen what they've hit, nor did they talk about it ..."

Unfortunately for those wishing to demonstrate indiscriminate use by quoting this article, the journalist, Darrin Mortenson, told the BBC on Wednesday that:

"The way it's been borrowed for blogs, they just kind of take that out of context.

"They [artillery gunners] receive a fire mission from someone that can actually see the target ... they can never see it -- that's why it's called indirect fire

[...]

"So it sounds like it was indiscriminate by the way the blogs are using it, but that was not the way it was."

Interviewer: "You don't believe that they would use it against civilians?"

Mortenson: "I never saw anybody intentionally use any weapons against civilians"

Retuning to Mr. Monbiot's piece, his further evidence comes from the March 2005 edition of Field Artillery, a magazine published by the US Army:

" WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive]. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out."

Note that neither source makes claims that WP has been used against anything other than combatant positions -- and nowhere does Mr. Monbiot make such claims, as the only evidence he can find supporting such accusations is so suspect. His concern is to show that "chemical weapons" have been used. So now it's incumbent upon him to show that WP does in fact constitute weaponry of that type.

This effort, which is sorely lacking, begins in the fourth paragraph of his piece:

"White phosphorus is not listed in the schedules of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It can be legally used as a flare to illuminate the battlefield, or to produce smoke to hide troop movements from the enemy. Like other unlisted substances, it may be deployed for "Military purposes... not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare".

This is correct, as we saw above from Mr. Kaiser. If the weapons use is "not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals", it's allowable, unless used against civilians.

Now Mr. Monbiot's deceptive spin begins:

"But it becomes a chemical weapon as soon as it is used directly against people. A chemical weapon can be 'any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm'."

This is simply not the case. Again, let's return to Mr. Kaiser, who, you will recall, is from the organization directly responsible for enforcing the chemical weapons conventions. Given that it was ignored, Mr. Kaiser's explanation is seemingly easy for people like Mr. Monbiot to miss, so I'll repeat them:

"The burns caused by WP were thermic rather than chemical and as such not prohibited by the treaty."

This is why WP is classified as a (permitted) incendiary weapon, rather than an illegal chemical agent.

Mr. Monbiot then tries to implicate smoke produced by burning WP -- smoke which is frequently used to screen friendly troops, and, in the words of globalsecurity.org -- a source he's just used in the previous paragraph! -- has caused "no recorded deaths", and "no casualties in combat operations"

Thus ends the argument that WP constitutes (implicitly illegal) chemical weaponry. After discussing the (lamentable) US backtracking on the issue, Monbiot then addresses the use of the mark 77 firebomb, which, like that of WP, is not prohibited against military targets.

The groundwork now laid, Mr. Monbiot finally arrives at the aim of his piece -- indeed, the Holy Grail of a certain kind of antiwar activist: to establish a moral equivalence between the US and Saddam Hussein:

"We were told that the war with Iraq was necessary for two reasons. Saddam Hussein possessed biological and chemical weapons and might one day use them against another nation. And the Iraqi people needed to be liberated from his oppressive regime, which had, among its other crimes, used chemical weapons to kill them. Tony Blair, Colin Powell, William Shawcross, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Ann Clwyd and many others referred, in making their case, to Saddam's gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988."

The meme equating the legal use of white phosphorus munitions with the gassing of thousands of defenseless civilians is breathtaking, but predictable -- and will no doubt continue its relentless march through the blogosphere, thanks in large part to Mr. Monbiot. What's more surprising is the readiness with which he makes the easily refuted claim that WP used against combatants is a "chemical weapon", with the implication that such use is illegal.

This is not to say that Mr. Monbiot is of no worth as a journalist -- far from it. Judging by his accurate assessment of the value of the Italian documentary, the Guardian should be using him as a film critic, leaving serious commentary to those with more rhetorical skill.

Find more of Scott Burgess' writings here.

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