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November 19th, 2005 - White Phosphorus Debate Grows White-Hot

News article from North County Times

Summary of White Phosphorus Weapons in Iraq

White Phosphorus Debate Grows White-Hot


By Darrin Mortenson

North County Times

November 19, 2005


"Shake 'n' Bake;" it's not just for dinner anymore. Once known in American suburbs as a convenient method to coat chicken with seasoning in a bag, "Shake 'n' Bake" was long ago inducted into the flavorful lexicon of American troops to name a special way to kill.


And in the Iraq war, where the war of words that rages at home and abroad often bears little relation to the real war of blood and tears in the field, "Shake 'n' Bake" has found its way to the center of yet another controversy over America's use of force in Iraq and her moral standing in the world.


As used by Marines and soldiers, "Shake 'n' Bake" refers to a standard technique used to deliver alternating rounds of high explosives and incendiary white phosphorus onto an enemy position with mortars or artillery.


White phosphorus is a chemical agent that ignites in air, burning white hot and sending thick white smoke often used by the military as a screen.


It easily starts fires; its particles burn flesh and are difficult to extinguish.


Whether shaking 'em up with the explosives and baking 'em with the burning phosphorus, or smoking them out with the phosphorus and killing them with the explosives - the goal is the same.


But it's the white phosphorus, not its delivery system, that has caused the recent row about how U.S. forces use force in Iraq.


Italian film fuels claims


For nearly two weeks now, critics have presented documentation, including reports by the North County Times from the Iraqi hotbed city of Fallujah last year, as evidence that U.S. forces used chemical weapons against insurgents and possibly civilians in Iraq.


The controversy that shook Europe and continues to burn officials in Washington seems to have started with a documentary by the Italian state-run television broadcaster RAI that aired in Europe last week. The film asserts that American forces used napalm-like weapons and white phosphorus during a massive U.S. offensive on Fallujah a year ago.


While it echoed claims made by "unilateral" - or non-embedded journalists - in Iraq, and followed accusations by Iraqi officials and residents of Fallujah over the year since the assault destroyed most of the city, the Italian program was the first mass airing of the charges that U.S. forces used chemical weapons on civilians.


It showed grisly photographs and video of bodies of men, women and children horribly burned, some to the bone, and showed video footage reportedly taken on the opening night of the battle showing American helicopters showering neighborhoods with white phosphorus.


The report was backed up with interviews with former American soldiers who said they witnessed the use of phosphorus. It quoted a report in the Army's own Field Artillery Magazine that enthusiastically described the weapon's effectiveness against entrenched insurgents in Fallujah.


The documentary's experts said that the use of white phosphorus was not banned per se, but was considered an illegal chemical weapon if used as an incendiary against people.


They charged the United States with war crimes.


A legal weapon?


The U.S. government quickly went on the defensive.


The State Department issued this rebuttal on its Web site, first citing a statement originally issued on Nov. 12, 2004, before the fighting in Fallujah was over:


"The United States categorically denies the use of chemical weapons at any time in Iraq, which includes the ongoing Fallujah operation."


The statement went on to deny that napalm-like incendiary killers, the Mark-77 fire-bombs, were used in Fallujah, but said that they were not outlawed and were in fact used against Iraqi troops in 2003.


It also said that phosphorus shells were not outlawed and were used only "very sparingly in Fallujah for illumination purposes."


The kicker of the State Department's denial said that white phosphorus was "fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters."


"There is a great deal of misinformation feeding on itself about U.S. forces allegedly using 'outlawed' weapons in Fallujah," the government statement concluded. "The facts are that U.S. forces are not using any illegal weapons in Fallujah or anywhere else in Iraq."


Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad, told the syndicated U.S. radio program "Democracy Now!" that he did not recall that white phosphorus "was used as an offensive weapon" in Fallujah. He called parts of the RAI documentary "tantamount to propaganda, falsehoods and rumors."


This is where the military crossed a line that led the Italian investigative team back to the North County Times.


Fallujah: Feels like the first time


In April 2004, staff photojournalist Hayne Palmour and I were embedded with Camp Pendleton-based Marines in Fallujah.


We had been there since March and documented the violence as it climaxed with the slaying and desecration of four American contractors.


When U.S. forces responded with Operation Vigilant Resolve - the first, and later aborted, U.S. assault on the city - we spent the first few days of the fight in a freshly dug position with a team of Marines manning a 60mm mortar they had named "Sara Lee."


We watched, and tried to stay out of the way, as they lobbed illumination rounds, high explosives and white phosphorus at targets they could not see, but that were spotted and marked by other troops who could.


I remember the gunner kicking my boots and legs out of the way as he spun around the dusty pit to change the direction of the mortar tube, while I sat against the collapsing sand wall furiously tapping out my story of the action on a laptop hidden under a thick black cloth used to snuff the computer's light.


Often not being able to react fast enough when I heard the team leader yell "Fire!", my head ached and my ears filled with a constant sharp metallic "bing" from the crack of the gun.


The night missions were mostly for "aloom," or the relatively harmless illumination rounds fired high into the air that open with a pop, igniting a flare of glowing white phosphorus that hisses as it drifts slowly to the ground under a white parachute.


Not even the dogs could hide.


‘Willie Pete’


During the day, when Marines in forward positions could see their targets, the missions they called into our crowded mortar pit were usually for high explosives, which the skilled gunners "walked" up to targets they knew only by the grid coordinates called in by the forward men with "eyes on."


Occasionally the call came for "Willie Pete," the term the troops used to flesh out the acronym for white phosphorus bombs.


They ordered it mostly to mark targets for bigger strikes. The dense white plume from the long-burning phosphorus made an easy target for Hellfire missiles from Cobra helicopters, or for 500-pound bombs dropped by jet pilots that circled above.


On several occasions, however, Willie Pete was personally summoned to kill.


When Marines could not rout insurgents from a palm grove and from an adjacent cluster of buildings, troops who had been fired on from those locations called on the mortar men to "shake and bake" the insurgents.


Acting on orders, the mortar men fired volley after volley, alternating rounds tipped with high explosives with others filled with white phosphorus.


No secret weapon


The Marines did not act as if white phosphorus were different than any other weapon they used. They did not try to hide it from us. It was just another item to select from a lethal menu handed them by their Corps and made familiar by repetitious training and indoctrination.


In fact, the leader of the mortar section later told me that other weapons would have been more effective in that case: Napalm would have more easily set the palm grove ablaze; and CS gas, similar to tear gas, would have been better to flush the insurgents out into the open.


But the use of napalm (Mark-77) was not approved by commanders, he said, and the CS was considered a chemical weapon, so they used the best tool they had: white phosphorus.


These were individual decisions made by one group of Marines in one skirmish in one part of a seven-square-mile city where Marines and insurgents were fighting nearly 360 degrees. Who knew what was going on elsewhere. It seemed impossible to draw larger conclusions.


That specific palm grove and those adjacent buildings were repeatedly hit with bombs and mortars and gunships, and we and the mortar men stayed low in the sandy pit to avoid the missiles, mortars and sniper fire that insurgents rained in.


Say it ain't so


We didn't think much of it at the time - of the white phosphorus, that is. It was just another weapon, another way to kill, and both sides were being creative.


That was until last week when the Italians broadcast their documentary subtitled "Hidden Massacre." Internet bloggers unearthed our 2004 reports from Fallujah, cutting and pasting isolated passages to suit their ends.


Other reports quickly surfaced, mostly from military sources, that showed that U.S. forces had in fact used white phosphorus in the assault in November against insurgents - and not just for illumination.


Even as the revelations created a storm of controversy in Europe and the Middle East, mainstream America media barely paid it notice.


U.S. officials followed a pattern familiar to anyone who closely follows the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or the so-called "Global War on Terror." They played a game of denials, partial denials, quasi-admissions and legalistic hair-splitting that seemed to satisfy folks at home but fueled suspicions abroad.


It wasn't until Thursday that U.S. officials finally capitulated and admitted that white phosphorus had been used in Fallujah to burn people and not just for screening or marking targets.


Lt. Col. Barry Venable told reporters Wednesday that the weapon had been used as an incendiary weapon against insurgents in Fallujah but "categorically" denied that it was intentionally used against civilians.


Bryan Whitman, another military spokesman quoted by the Boston Globe, said white phosphorus is "part of our conventional weapons inventory and we use it like we use any other conventional weapons."


A life of its own


OK. Alrighty then. It's over, right? Let's flip the channel.


Not so fast.


While the military statements may have snuffed the controversy in the U.S., the white phosphorus controversy thrives in Iraq, Europe and the Middle East, fueling the growing sense that U.S. officials have been less than truthful and that U.S. forces use unnecessary - if not illegal - force in Iraq.


The irony relished by critics and denied by U.S. officials is that it could be the Americans, not Saddam Hussein, unleashing chemical weapons in Iraq.


An Iraqi human rights group was heading to Fallujah to investigate the claims Wednesday, according to the Globe.


Even now, bloggers sustain their Internet attack, the best culling official and unofficial documents for new evidence, and the worst recutting and repasting one another's hack reporting into their circular arguments.


While the row over chemical weapons continues on the Internet and abroad, U.S. Marines fought on in western Iraq in what was touted as the largest U.S. offensive since the massive assault on Fallujah a year ago - the same one at the center of the ongoing white phosphorus and napalm debate.


Fallujah forever


It was after that battle a year ago  which left the city a smoking ruin and which the military said killed at least 1,500 insurgents - that American officials declared they had turned another corner in the war.


Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of the Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force, told the world that the assault had "broken the back of the insurgency."


U.S. troops killed top rebel lieutenants, destroyed the infrastructure of arms caches and terror cells, and forever denied terrorists a haven in Fallujah, he said.


The broken insurgency, however, has moved, mutated and multiplied, killing more troops and reportedly recruiting more members in the year since the Fallujah battle.


"Remember Fallujah," the new recruits say as they honor and seek to emulate the martyrs, embellishing stories of American terror in the city that gain more credibility with each fresh revelation of America's use of force there.


Terror cells in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the region have adopted Fallujah into their names. Like Dixie or the Alamo, it continues to inspire.


The recent bombing of hotels in Jordan by Fallujah survivors indicate that the bombers were moved to kill even outside their country to avenge their city and the people they lost there.


Even Fallujah, which is not yet completely rebuilt and which reportedly seethes with anti-American sentiment as it repopulates, risks returning to its former status of insurgent citadel.


The latest revelations that U.S. forces used white phosphorus, however legal or however justified in military terms, could not have helped staunch the flow of new blood to the cause. Nor could the appearance that the U.S. tried to deny it.


In Iraq, the troops say they have had a hard time trusting the Iraqis. It's equally hard to trust that a tactical military victory will translate into a strategic one.


And as the world outside America continues to shake its head over the use of force in Fallujah, it's fair to ask again whether the assault really broke the back of the insurgency or gave it wings to fly.


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