North County Times November 22, 2005
Official waffling on white phosphorus fuels debate abroad
By Darrin Mortenson
While U.S. military officials continue to mix their messages on how American troops use white phosphorus in Iraq, analysts say people in the rest of the world are left to reach their own conclusions about a growing perception that the U.S. used chemical weapons in Iraq and then tried to cover it up.
It appeared late last week that the military had finally contained a two-week storm of criticism and accusations about the use of white phosphorus, a chemical that ignites upon contact with air, by admitting that it had been used in Iraq as an "incendiary weapon" against insurgents. They denied that it was a chemical weapon and that it was used against civilians.
After conflicting and incorrect statements that were later retracted or modified, the flat admission at week's end seemed to knock the wind out of some of the claims of a cover-up.
But as officials continued to contradict earlier statements about white phosphorous this week, and the military on Tuesday once again shifted its official position on how the weapons were used, the issue burned on in Europe and on the Internet.
"It's done a fair amount of damage, and it's really made us look bad," said John Pike, a Virginia-based military analyst and director of the Internet site GlobalSecurity.org.
Pike said the government's shifty response, more than the merits of the claims, gave the issue undue attention. Most of the allegations are based on misunderstandings and outright falsehoods, he said, but poor damage control perpetuated the idea "that America does terrible things and then lies about it."
"It's created a separate reality, one in which the U.S. used poisonous gas on civilians in Fallujah ---- which we didn't," he said. "It's just untrue. It's just made up."
White phosphorus is not banned outright by international convention ---- the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, of which the U.S. is not a signatory ---- but its status as a chemical or incendiary weapon depends on how it is used.
Interpretations of those definitions, much like definitions of "enemy combatants" and other gray areas in the law of war, are at the heart of the debate on white phosphorus and they are why arms control experts, journalists, the military and international opinion continue to collide on the issue.
It is also why U.S. military officials keep changing how they word their statements on the issue, according to Venable, who said a closer reading of the convention caused him to change earlier statements.
Pike called the legalistic nuances "weasel words," and said he could only watch in disbelief this week as U.S. officials continued to fuel speculation with their own inconsistencies and fuzziness.
On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal quoted Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III, the commander of the U.S. Central Command Air Forces, saying that white phosphorus "is purely used as a marking round, not a weapon."
Col. Dave Lapan, top spokesman for the U.S. Marine force currently serving in western Iraq, including Fallujah, responded to questions from the North County Times on the use of white phosphorus. He maintained that white phosphorus bombs could be unleashed on insurgents.
"Itís a conventional weapon used as an obscurant, for marking and illumination, and may be used against enemy forces," he wrote in an e-mail. "As with any weapon in our inventory, we consider the target vulnerability and location, available munitions, risk to the civilian population, and risk to friendly forces in determining how a target will be attacked."
Also on Tuesday ---- after seeming to have the last word on the cover-up controversy last week when he said U.S. forces had used the chemical as a perfectly legal "incendiary weapon" against insurgents ---- Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable backtracked on that statement and denied the weapon was used to burn insurgents or civilians.
He said it was only used to drive enemy fighters out of their hiding places so they could be killed by other means.
"We do not use it as an incendiary weapon," said Venable, contradicting his earlier statements.
"But it has incendiary effects," he added.
In his rolling Texas drawl, Venable compared the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah to lawmen trapping "bad guys" in a Western film.
If the fugitives are holed up in a building and "you can't shoot 'em any other way," he said, "you set fire to the building and shoot 'em when they run out.
"That's how they (white phosphorus bombs) were used in Fallujah," Venable said.
Venable, even as he further parsed his previous statements on white phosphorus, blamed the controversy on inaccurate reporting, and mistakes made by government officials.
They first faced the charges on Nov. 8 when Italian public television aired a documentary accusing U.S. forces of killing and maiming residents of Fallujah, including women and children, with chemical weapons during the final assault on Fallujah in November 2004.
The New York Times, among others, later characterized the documentary as "riddled with errors and exaggerations."
Pike, the defense analyst, was one of the first experts to debunk some of the film's central claims.
The military called it propaganda.
However weak, the Italian story got a boost once the U.S. government denied the claims.
Lower-level military officials initially used an old State Department statement on the issue that incorrectly said U.S. forces used white phosphorus only to screen troop movements and illuminate the battlefield ---- not as a weapon against troops.
That was wrong, according to Venable, the Pentagon spokesman.
A clarification was posted on the State Department's Web site on Nov. 10, but it was too late, Venable said.
When evidence surfaced proving that U.S. troops had, in fact, fired white phosphorus against insurgents who'd bunkered themselves in buildings and under other cover, the Pentagon was forced to revise the flawed State Department statement.
It left the impression that there was a cover-up, Venable said.
Officials have yet to read from the same page on the issue.
The scandal followed a pattern that has plagued U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in which U.S. officials have denied accusations, then have revised their positions as new evidence refutes their claims.
Think "weapons of mass destruction," Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Pike said.
Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., agreed with Pike that the story and its mismanagement by the military fed ---- and were fed by ---- increasingly anti-American positions in Europe and elsewhere abroad.
The facts do not support the harshest of the documentary's claims, he said.
"It may have been used in questionable ways in isolated circumstances," he said, "but it was not a systematic abuse of this agent, nor is it a banned agent."
He said that because the military's use of white phosphorus has never been so openly challenged or questioned, and because the battle of Fallujah happened so long ago without such an uproar as it's igniting now, he believes the military was "caught off balance."
"It was not the most stellar job," he said of the military's response.
Pike was not so kind.
"I wonder if there is any adult supervision up there," he said of the Pentagon's public affairs apparatus.
Venable, the Pentagon spokesman, said insurgents and anti-American and anti-war groups have proven to be tough adversaries in the war of public opinion.
"Obviously, we are nowhere near where we need to be in the counter-propaganda arena," Venable said in an apologetic tone Tuesday.
"It potentially reflects negatively on what was in fact a significant feat of arms," Venable said of the Fallujah battle. "The American people need to know that their sons and daughters did the right thing in Fallujah, and that job was killing insurgents. That's what war is about."
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