The New York Times November 19, 2005
U.S. Is Slow to Respond to Phosphorus Charges
By Scott Shane
WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 - On Nov. 8, Italian public television showed a documentary renewing persistent charges that the United States had used white phosphorus rounds, incendiary munitions that the film incorrectly called chemical weapons, against Iraqis in Falluja last year. Many civilians died of burns, the report said.
The half-hour film was riddled with errors and exaggerations, according to United States officials and independent military experts. But the State Department and Pentagon have so bungled their response - making and then withdrawing incorrect statements about what American troops really did when they fought a pitched battle against insurgents in the rebellious city - that the charges have produced dozens of stories in the foreign news media and on Web sites suggesting that the Americans used banned weapons and tried to cover it up.
The Iraqi government has announced an investigation, and a United Nations spokeswoman has expressed concern.
"It's discredited the American military without any basis in fact," said John E. Pike, an expert on weapons who runs GlobalSecurity.org, an independent clearinghouse for military information. He said the "stupidity and incompetence" of official comments had fueled suspicions of a cover-up.
"The story most people around the world have is that the Americans are up to their old tricks - committing atrocities and lying about it," Mr. Pike said. "And that's completely incorrect."
Daryl G. Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit organization that researches nuclear issues, was more cautious. In light of the issues raised since the film was shown, he said, the Defense Department, and perhaps an independent body, should review whether American use of white phosphorus had been consistent with international weapons conventions.
"There are legitimate questions that need to be asked," Mr. Kimball said. Given the history of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons in Iraq, he said, "we have to be extremely careful" to comply with treaties and the rules of war.
At a time when opposition to the war is growing, the white phosphorus issue has reinforced the worst suspicions about American actions.
The documentary was quickly posted as a video file on Web sites worldwide. Bloggers trumpeted its allegations. Foreign newspapers and television reported the charges and rebuttals, with headlines like "The Big White Lie" in The Independent of London.
Officials now acknowledge that the government's initial response was sluggish and misinformed.
"There's so much inaccurate information out there now that I'm not sure we can unscrew it," Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Defense Department spokesman who has handled many inquiries about white phosphorus, said Friday.
The State Department declined to comment for the record, but an official there said privately that the episode was a public relations failure.
The Italian documentary, titled "Falluja: The Hidden Massacre," included gruesome images of victims of the fierce fighting in the city in November 2004. American and Iraqi troops recaptured the city from insurgents, in battles that destroyed an estimated 60 percent of the buildings.
Opening with prolonged shots of Vietnamese children and villages burned by American use of napalm in 1972, the film suggested an equivalence between Mr. Hussein's use of chemical weapons in the 1980's and the use of white phosphorus by the American-led forces.
It incorrectly referred to white phosphorus shells - a munition of nearly every military commonly used to create smoke screens or fires - as banned chemical weapons.
The film showed disfigured bodies and suggested that hot-burning white phosphorus had melted the flesh while leaving clothing intact. Sigfrido Ranucci, the television correspondent who made the documentary, said in an interview this month that he had received the photographs from an Iraqi doctor. "We are not talking about corpses like the normal deaths in war," he said.
Military veterans familiar with white phosphorus, known to soldiers as "W. P." or "Willie Pete," said it could deliver terrible burns, since an exploding round scatters bits of the compound that burst into flames on exposure to air and can burn into flesh, penetrating to the bone.
But they said white phosphorus would have burned victims' clothing. The bodies in the film appeared to be decomposed, they said.
In their first comments after the Nov. 8 broadcast, American officials made some of those points. But they relied on an inaccurate State Department fact sheet first posted on the Web last December, when similar accusations first surfaced.
The fact sheet said American forces had used white phosphorus shells "very sparingly in Falluja, for illumination purposes, and were fired "to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters."
The Americans stuck to that position last spring after Iraq's Health Ministry claimed it had proof of civilian casualties from the weapons.
After the Italian documentary was broadcast, the American ambassadors to Italy, Ronald P. Spogli, and to Britain, Robert H. Tuttle, echoed the stock defense, denying that white phosphorus munitions had been used against enemy fighters, let alone civilians. At home, on the public radio program "Democracy Now," Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, an American military spokesman, said, "I know of no cases where people were deliberately targeted by the use of white phosphorus."
But those statements were incorrect. Firsthand accounts by American officers in two military journals note that white phosphorus munitions had been aimed directly at insurgents in Falluja to flush them out. War critics and journalists soon discovered those articles.
In the face of such evidence, the Bush administration made an embarrassing public reversal last week. Pentagon spokesmen admitted that white phosphorus had been used directly against Iraqi insurgents. "It's perfectly legitimate to use this stuff against enemy combatants," Colonel Venable said Friday.
While he said he could not rule out that white phosphorus hit some civilians, "U.S. and coalition forces took extraordinary measures to prevent civilian casualties in Falluja."
Ian Fisher contributed reporting from Rome for this article.
© Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company