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Reuters November 17, 2005

Key facts about white phosphorus weapons

Nov 17 (Reuters) - The Pentagon has acknowledged using incendiary white-phosphorus munitions in a 2004 offensive against insurgents in the Iraqi city of Falluja. Following are key facts about white phosphorus.


White phosphorus munitions are primarily used by the U.S. military to make smoke screens or mark targets as a signaling mechanism, but also as an incendiary weapon, the Pentagon said. It is not considered a chemical weapon under international conventions. It is a colorless or yellowish translucent wax-like substance that smells a bit like garlic. The substance ignites easily in air at temperatures of about 86 degrees F (30 C) and its fire can be difficult to extinguish. It commonly is dispersed by high-explosive munitions.


The Pentagon says white phosphorus is a conventional munition that is not outlawed or illegal or banned by any convention. It states that it is legal to fire these weapons at enemy fighters "out of military necessity and in accordance with the rules of proportionality." In the November 2004 Marine-led offensive in Falluja that involved fierce urban fighting, the Pentagon acknowledged using white phosphorus weapons against enemy fighters in a what they called a "shake-and-bake technique." Shells containing white phosphorous were fired at insurgents in foxholes or other covered positions to smoke them out and they were then hit with high-explosives artillery rounds.


The Convention on the Prohibition of Use of Certain Conventional Weapons went into effect in 1983. Protocol III of the convention prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against civilians. The protocol also forbids their use against military targets within concentrations of civilians, except when the targets are clearly separated from civilians and "all feasible precautions" are taken to avoid civilian casualties. The United States is a party to the overall convention, but has not ratified the incendiary-weapons protocol.


The Arms Control Association, a Washington group that advocates arms control, questioned whether the U.S. military was using the weapons in a manner consistent with the conventional weapons convention. It called for an independent review and possibly an investigation by the states parties of the conventional weapons accord to determine whether their use in Iraq is appropriate.

Sources: Pentagon, GlobalSecurity.org

Copyright 2005, Reuters