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CNN THE SITUATION ROOM 17:00 ET November 16, 2005

THE SITUATION ROOM: White-Hot Weapon

BLITZER: What is clear is that major combat operations very much under way still in Iraq.

Nic, thank you very much.

The latest casualties follow on the heels of announcements by the military that four soldiers and a Marine died in bombings yesterday. Today's bloody clash brings the total number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq to 2,079.

Meanwhile, controversy is raging over a white-hot weapon used last year during the offensive in the city of Fallujah. The uproar began with a report on Italian state television charging that white phosphorous munitions which produce smoke and intense heat were used, apparently, at least according to this report, indiscriminately, causing civilian casualties.

Let's get some specific details. Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, standing by.

What's going on, Jamie?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is an incendiary charge, and one the Pentagon strongly denies. Not that they used white phosphorus munitions, but that they used them against civilians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE (voice over): The Italian TV documentary alleges that during the siege of Fallujah a year ago, the U.S. military used white phosphorus artillery shows in a massive and indiscriminate 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.

BRIG. GEN. DON ALSTON, U.S. AIR FORCE: We have not changed our position that in fact we did not use white phosphorus against civilians in Fallujah during Operation Fallujah. MCINTYRE: But while strongly denying civilians were deliberately targeted, the Pentagon has belatedly admitted the phosphorous shells, which burn extremely hot and produce thick smoke, were used against enemy combatants in Fallujah. In an initial State Department response it claimed incorrectly the incendiary shells were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night.

Unlike napalm, which is designed to set large areas ablaze, and which the U.S. no longer uses, white phosphorus is usually employed to mark a target or produce a smoke screen to hide troop movements. But the U.S. troops attacking Fallujah in November 2004 had another use for the super-hot burning munitions, which they called 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.

As long as the U.S. military takes care not to target civilians, that is perfectly legal, say experts.

JOHN PIKE, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: There's some countries that have signed a treaty that outlaw its use against civilian targets. That treaty doesn't outlaw its use against military targets, and the U.S. has not signed that treaty.

And Wolf, any munition can cause unattended civilian casualties. The Pentagon insists it works very hard to avoid that. They also said that for weeks they urged civilians to leave Fallujah, and by the time the siege took place, most of the people there were either insurgents or their sympathizers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Technically, is this considered a chemical weapon or a weapon of mass destruction?

MCINTYRE: Absolutely not. It's not a chemical weapon, although white phosphorous obviously is a chemical that burns.

This would have been covered under a separate convention for conventional weapons, but again, it's one the U.S. military hasn't signed on to. That proposed ban would have only banned it, again, against civilians. This was against what the U.S. says was a legitimate military target.

BLITZER: If so many other countries have banned this white phosphorous munition to be used against civilians, why hasn't the United States signed on to that treaty?

MCINTYRE: Well, they have a host of problems with various parts of the protocols of the treaty. But just like they haven't signed on to bans against landmines or cluster bombs, which some people argue are indiscriminate weapons, the Pentagon argues it's not the weapons that's indiscriminate, it's how they use them. And they say they have very strict policies about how these weapons are used.

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon. Thank you very much.


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