CNN THE SITUATION ROOM 16:00 ET November 16, 2005
THE SITUATION ROOM: White Phosphorus
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Thanks very much, Lou, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
Standing by, CNN reporters bringing you the day's top stories.
Happening now, it's 3:00 a.m. Thursday in Iraq where the Pentagon admits U.S. forces have used white phosphorus against insurgents in Falluja. We'll show you what it is and why it's causing so much controversy around the world.
It's 8:00 p.m. in Havana, where some believe Fidel Castro is suffering from Parkinson's disease. We'll take a closer look at the reasons why and what it could mean for the future of Cuba.
And it's 7:00 p.m. here in Washington where Ted Koppel is getting set to retire from "Nightline" for the final time. I'll talk to him about his career, the state of TV news and we'll even surprise him with a few unexpected guests. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Right now, here in Washington, the war of words over Iraq is about to get harsher. The Vice President Dick Cheney is about to blast charges that the Bush administration misled the country into war. Charges he will call dishonest and reprehensible. The rhetoric and the anger have been building for days. This expected, though, to be the toughest push-back yet by the administration against its Democratic critics. The speech scheduled to begin only minutes from now. We will go there live in THE SITUATION ROOM once it does.
Also, this hour, a weapon of war that produces enough heat to sizzle flesh and it's adding to international outrage against the U.S. mission in Iraq. The Pentagon today acknowledged it did use white phosphorus against insurgents in Falluja last year. But, and this is a critical but, the Pentagon is vigorously denying that WP, as it's known, was used against civilians.
Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre is standing by. Jamie?
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if it were true that the U.S. military used an incendiary weapon against civilians indiscriminately, it would be a war crime. But the Pentagon insists it didn't happen that way.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MCINTYRE (voice-over): The Italian TV documentary says during the siege of Falluja a year ago, the U.S. military used white phosphorus artillery shells in a massive and indiscriminant way against civilians and the result was that noncombatants, including Iraqi women and children were burned to the bone.
The U.S. military was quick to deny the report and said it did not know how these people died.
BRIG. GEN. DONALD ALSTON, USAF: We have not changed our position that in fact we did not use white phosphorus against civilians in Falluja during Operation.
MCINTYRE: While strongly denying civilians were targeted, the Pentagon has belatedly admitted the phosphorus shells, which burn hot and produce thick smoke were used against enemy positions in Falluja. An initial State Department response claimed incorrectly the shells were only fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters.
Unlike napalm, which is designed to set large areas ablaze, and which the U.S. no longer uses white phosphorus is used to mark a target or produce a smoke screen to hide troop movements. But the U.S. troops attacking Falluja in November 2004 had another use for the super-hot burning munition, which they call shake and bake missions.
According to an after action report published in "Field Artillery Magazine," U.S. troops used white phosphorus as a potent psychological weapon against insurgents in trench lines and spider holes. Firing the incendiary rounds against enemy positions to flush them out, then using high explosives to take them out.
The United States never signed an international ban against using incendiary weapons, but experts say that doesn't matter. Because the ban didn't apply to legitimate military targets.
JOHN PIKE, DIR., GLOBAL SECURITY.ORG: There is a Geneva protocol against using it against civilians the way we used firebombs in cities in World War II. It's legitimate under that Geneva protocol to use it against military targets, like in Falluja.
MCINTYRE (on camera): Any munition can produce unintended civilian casualties, but the Pentagon insists in this case it worked very hard to prevent the loss of innocent lives. In addition, the U.S. military says it urged civilians for weeks to get out of Falluja. And by the time the siege took place, it believes most of the people there were either insurgents or their sympathizers. Wolf?
BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon. Jamie, thanks very much.
Let's bring in a leading expert on defense policy to help us understand what white phosphorus can do and how it should and should not be used. You saw him in Jamie's report just now, he's John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org.
John, thanks very much for joining us. What's the military advantage of using these munitions, these white phosphorus munitions?
PIKE: Well, the field artillery has a variety of different types of ammunition that they can fire from their weapons, incendiary rounds being one of them. In the case of Falluja, they were basically going up against an enemy that was dug in. And in order to get them out in the open so they could attack them with the explosive rounds, they were firing these incendiary munitions at them.
BLITZER: You write on your Web site, "these weapons are particularly nasty because white phosphorus continues to burn until it disappears. If service members are hit by pieces of white phosphorus, it could burn right down to the bone." It sounds awful.
PIKE: Well, it really is that's why it was effective in Falluja and that's why it continues to be part of the United States arsenal. Because if you're up against a dug-in enemy and they are in sniper nests or in trench lines that you can't get at in any other way, this is basically a way of getting them out in the open where you can get at them.
BLITZER: Is it similar to napalm which we all remember from Vietnam and which the Pentagon now insists it no longer uses?
PIKE: Well, the Pentagon claims that it's not using napalm but I'm afraid that this is another place where they are being economical with the truth. The old napalm was mixed at the factory. The new and improved napalm they mix the aviation gas, the petrol and the Styrofoam thickener out on the flight line.
That's also been used, early in the war that was something they denied using, but finally had to admit that in fact they were using. The white phosphorus is different in the case that if you are hit by napalm, it can burn all over your body. Where as the white phosphorus, there is going to be a small chunk of it, a pellet that is going to burn you in one specific place without burning you all over your body.
BLITZER: What do they call the new version of napalm?
PIKE: They call it a flame bomb. But it's napalm simply by another name. It has the same effect and it's dropped in the same bomb body that the bad old napalm was dropped in.
BLITZER: John Pike, thanks very much for joining us. John Pike, who knows a lot about this subject.
Let's get more now from ore Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, who is monitoring the situation online. What are you picking up, Jacki?
JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I wanted to show you an example of a story that bumped around the blogs a little bit before it hit the mainstream media, at least here in the United States. Here's where it started with Daily Kos. This is the big liberal blog, it's got 700,000 views a day.
One of their diarists, Paper Tigress people picked up on the Italian report that Jamie had mentioned in his package.
They state on the story a couple of days later, trying to find some information to corroborate the evidence. They did so. That article, entitled "The Fight for Falluja," also available online, you can read that through the army magazine "Field Artillery.
All of this is available via the Internet. The other thing they found over at Kos was this news report from early 2004 from a reporter with a California newspaper who was embedded with the marines.
All of this talking about the use of white phosphorus.
As for the official government statements, those are available online from the State Department, and what you can read is they are initially talking about chemical weapons, the U.S. was not using them. There were some Islamic Web sites online that were accusing the United States of using them.
This is their official statement. They also go on a couple of days ago and talk about the use of white phosphorus and how it is being used not just for illumination but also for screening purposes. Smokescreens.
BLITZER: All right, Jacki, thanks very much.
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