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The Herald November 23, 2005

US defends missiles that razed Falluja

By Ian Bruce

EXPERIMENTAL missiles capable of collapsing buildings and incinerating or entombing their occupants were used by US Marines during last year's assault on Falluja.

Thermobaric warheads destroyed homes which had been turned into heavily fortified strongholds by insurgents in the Iraqi city.

A similar weapon, used by the Russians in Chechnya, resulted in the deaths of many civilians. Thermobaric weapons have also been reported as causing crushing injuries such as concussions, collapsed lungs, internal bleeding and burst eardrums.

Confirmation of their battlefield use follows last week's controversy over the legality of employing white phosphorus munitions during the offensive.

The shoulder-fired weapons were developed for use in urban combat after the success of thermobaric bombs dropped by strike aircraft on caves containing al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan in 2001.

Fired by a single infantryman at close range against buildings, the warheads produce "a shockwave of unparalleled destructive power", according to a US marine report seen by The Herald.

It adds: "One unit disintegrated a large, one-storey masonry-type building with one round from 100 metres. They were extremely impressed."

The weapons were designed by a US naval research centre at Indian Head, Maryland, and rushed into service last year.

The US Marine Corps Gazette reported that "gunners became expert at determining which wall to shoot to cause the roof to collapse and crush the insurgents fortified inside interior rooms".

It added: "We found that our assaultmen had first to fire a dual-purpose, high-explosive rocket in order to create a hole in the wall or building. This blast was immediately followed by a thermobaric round that would incinerate the target or literally level the structure."

The marines justify the use of the new weapon by stating: "The rationale for this approach is straightforward. Marines could employ highly effective blast weapons prior to entering houses that had become pillboxes, not homes.

"The economic cost of house replacement is not comparable to American lives."

According to Human Rights Watch, thermobaric weapons "kill and injure in a particularly brutal manner over a wide area. In urban settings it is very difficult to limit the effect of this weapon to combatants." The group claims it is "virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect".

John Pike, of GlobalSecurity, a defence think-tank, said: "These thermobaric weapons have generated a fair amount of public misunderstanding, and have been made out to be a peculiarly horrible means of killing people. If it turned out that, in practice, the primary effect was indeed incendiary, there might be some problems under the international laws of armed conflict."

Flamethrowers and incendiary grenades containing white phosphorus are illegal under the Geneva conventions when used on civilians, civilian property or on military targets near civilian populations.

A US military spokesman confirmed that the experimental warheads had been used in Falluja, but denied that they contravened the laws of war.

"They are enhanced blast-effect weapons, not incendiaries or fuel-air munitions. They were used to take out heavily fortified positions where insurgents had dug in deep and could not be tackled without risking considerable casualties among coalition forces."

At least 50 marines and an estimated 1200 insurgents died during the weeks-long battle for the Sunni Triangle city.

In Iraq yesterday, a suicide car bomb blast killed 18 people, including 10 police, in Kirkuk, the latest in a five-day spate of suicide bombs ahead of elections on December 15.

Mortars landed near the US ambassador in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit. Zalmay Khalilzad was at a ceremony handing palaces back to the government. No-one was hurt.

The US military quashed speculation that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant ringleader, may have been among eight militant leaders killed on Saturday when US and Iraqi forces surrounded a house in Mosul.

"I have absolutely no reason to believe that he was one of those that were killed," said General John Vines, the No 2 US commander in Iraq.
Zarqawi, whose al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the hotel bombings that killed 60 in Amman, Jordan, this month, has masterminded some of Iraq's deadliest attacks.

Copyright 2005, Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited