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Daily Texan November 23, 2005

Common ground with Saddam

By Jordan Buckley

At long last, chemical weapons have finally been uncovered in Iraq.

No, it's not the three anthrax strains shipped from the Manassas, Va.-based American Type Culture Collection in May 1986 to the University of Baghdad which United Nations inspectors since linked to Iraq's biological weapons program.

It's not the five strains of Clostridium botulinum the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mailed directly to Iraq's al-Muthanna complex in 1986, the site where Iraq revived its biological weapons program in 1985. And it's not even the six strains of gas gangrene - known for forming toxic gases inside the body, destroying tissues and creating internal bleeding, lung and liver damage - that the culture collection passed along to Baghdad from 1986 to 1988.

Instead, the State Department recently acknowledged our military's use of white phosphorus weapons during the brutal siege of Fallujah.

While this revelation has largely faced a media blackout in the United States, the issue of white phosphorus has sparked fierce debate elsewhere, particularly in Europe.

On Nov. 8, a documentary on Italian public television accused U.S. forces of using white phosphorus munitions indiscriminately, which they defined as "chemical weapons."

White phosphorus - a highly flammable material which ignites when exposed to oxygen and will melt human skin until all the oxygen is used up - while gruesome, is still technically not a chemical weapon, the Bush administration argues. It principally uses thermal properties to burn everything around it, rather than chemical properties which attack the body's life system.

Regardless, the effects of the toxic agent are unmistakably vicious. So what does the exact classification of the weapons - chemical versus incendiary - really matter? Very likely, only to distance the reprehensible, illegal violence of the U.S. military from the reprehensible, illegal violence of Saddam Hussein.

Everyone knows chemical weapons are his deal and not ours, right?

According to The Guardian, a declassified document from the U.S. Department of Defense dated April 1991 may substantially reshape discussion as to whether the United States considers white phosphorus a chemical weapon. The report - tellingly titled "Possible use of Phosphorus Chemical" - alleges that "during the brutal crackdown that followed the Kurdish uprising," Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and the populace in the Iraq provinces of Erbil and Dohuk. The WP chemical was delivered by artillery rounds and helicopter gunships. These reports of possible WP chemical weapon attacks spread quickly and hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled from these two areas.

White phosphorus is to napalm what a photocopy is to a Xerox or a tissue to a Kleenex. "The trademark name was not used, but a different composition that has the same effect was used for napalm," John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, told National Public Radio last week.

Initially, the State Department denied accusations of using white phosphorus as a weapon. A fact sheet posted to their Web site last December claimed that U.S. forces had fired white phosphorus shells only "to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters."

Afterward, Iraq's Health Ministry claimed it had proof of civilian casualties from the munitions. But U.S. ambassadors in Italy and Britain parroted the State Department's defense, denying that white phosphorus weapons had been used to attack enemy fighters, much less civilians.

But following admissions from U.S. military officers that white phosphorus had indeed been directly aimed at insurgents in Fallujah with the intentions of forcing them to evacuate, the Bush administration was compelled to make a humiliating public reversal last week.

"It's perfectly legitimate to use this stuff against enemy combatants," said Col. Barry Venable, Pentagon spokesman.

Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons prohibits the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon in air attacks against military forces in civilian areas. Conveniently, the United States is not a signatory to the convention.

But even if we were, so what?

Never mind that the head of the United Nations has publicly deemed our misadventures in Iraq "illegal." Never mind that while our president unconvincingly tells the world "We do not torture," our vice president seeks out exemptions to the ban on torture for our Central Intelligence Agency.

What additional harm would war crimes inflict upon us within the context of what is already nearly universally accepted as a criminal war?

The planet's eyes are on us to stir from apathy and disrupt the recklessness of our government's actions. We must not neglect this very real duty; complacency is indeed complicity.

Buckley is a Spanish and sociology senior.


Copyright 2005, Daily Texan