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Top Military Official Calls White Phosphorous "Legitimate Tool"

01 December 2005

Munitions were used by U.S. forces in Fallujah in 2004, general says

By Vince Crawley
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The top-ranking U.S. military officer says white phosphorous is an appropriate battlefield weapon and emphasized that American troops take great care to avoid targeting civilians during combat.

“White phosphorous is a legitimate tool of the military,” Marine Corps General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Pentagon news conference November 29, responding to a reporter’s question about the use of white phosphorous in Iraq.

An Italian television station on November 8 aired a documentary discussing the use of white phosphorous by U.S. troops in Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004. The documentary called white phosphorous a “chemical weapon,” and said it was used against civilians during the battle to capture the insurgent stronghold. Other news organizations have repeated the allegations, which are incorrect, according to U.S. military officials.  (See related article.)

Defense Department officials have confirmed U.S. troops used white phosphorous munitions against insurgents during Operation Al Fajr in Fallujah, according to a November 30 release by the American Forces Information Service. However, officials refuted media reports that U.S. forces targeted civilians or used the substance as an incendiary weapon. The substance ignites when exposed to air and can cause serious burns.

“It is used for two primary purposes,” Pace told reporters. “One is to mark a location for strike by an aircraft, for example. The other is to be used -- because it does create white smoke -- to be used as a screening agent so that you can move your forces without being seen by the enemy.”

However, “it is not a chemical weapon,” Pace stressed, adding that “it is well within the law of war to use those weapons as they are being used for marking and for screening.”

During the news conference, Pace called white phosphorus an “incendiary weapon,” but a subsequent legal review by the Defense Department prompted a clarification. “It is not an incendiary weapon as defined by the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons,” the Defense Department said in a statement accompanying an official transcript of Pace’s news briefing.

In a follow-up question, a reporter asked Pace if white phosphorous is an appropriate weapon for a densely populated urban setting.

“No armed force in the world goes to greater effort” than that of the United States  “to protect civilians and to be very precise in the way we apply our power,” Pace told the reporters. “A bullet goes through skin even faster than white phosphorous does.  So I would rather have the proper instrument applied at the proper time as precisely as possible to get the job done in a way that kills as many of the bad guys as possible and does as little collateral damage as possible. That is just the nature of warfare.”

In the March-April 2005 issue of Field Artillery magazine, a U.S. Army publication, three Army members wrote that white phosphorous was used in Fallujah in 2004 to hide American troop movements with its white smoke. The article also said white phosphorous was used as “a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes.” It said U.S. forces used white phosphorous to flush enemy fighters into the open.

In mid-November, the British newspaper The Independent interviewed Peter Kaiser with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The organization oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.  Kaiser said that when white phosphorus is used in a way that does not rely on toxic chemical effects, but on smoke-causing and heat effects – as it was used in Fallujah – it is not considered a chemical weapon.

For more information about U.S. policy see International Security

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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