White phosphorus and war crimes in Fallujah

When and where will the horrors of the Cheney-Bush administration finally end? What will they not stoop to? In the very midst of the excruciatingly public dispute about whether we should allow our leaders to use torture, and whether in fact they have been sending prisoners all over the globe to be tortured, the United States now admits to chemical warfare. What’s next, the use of bird flu as an antipersonnel weapon?

Earlier this month, an Italian documentary purported to show that in the siege of Fallujah in Iraq in October and November 2004, the U.S. Marines had used white phosphorus as an antipersonnel weapon. The documentary was questioned even by some progressive and antiwar writers, because certain of its images of people allegedly burned to the bone by phosphorus may have been, they argued, merely images of bodies in advanced stages of decomposition.

The Bush administration also initially denied using the substance as an antipersonnel weapon, saying that they used it only to illuminate the battlefield. But diligent researchers quickly found a very direct admission of an antipersonnel use of white phosphorus coming out of the “horse’s mouth,” in an article in the U.S. Army’s journal, Field Artillery.

In this article, officers who had been in Fallujah described the use of white phosphorus, or “Willy Pete,” as the soldiers called it, to bombard enemy positions which could not easily be reached by other weapons, e.g. where insurgents were holed up inside buildings. The tactic was described as “shake and bake”: Heavy artillery or aerial bombing would do the “shaking” and then the white phosphorus, which catches fire when deployed and burns human flesh to the bone, was presumably doing the “baking.”

So the Bush administration had to admit that it had, indeed, used white phosphorus as an antipersonnel weapon, but shifted ground. Just as it tries to avoid being accused of violating constitutional rights by holding its prisoners outside of the U.S., and tries to avoid being accused of torture by redefining torture beyond recognition, it now tries to avoid being accused of chemical warfare as defined under the 1993 International Convention on Chemical Weapons. It hides behind the technicality that white phosphorus is not specifically listed as a chemical weapon. It merely burns you to a crisp rather than poisoning you.

Also, they say, they were not specifically trying to “bake” women and children with the stuff, because they had warned them all to get out of Fallujah before the shaking and baking got started, so it is not prohibited under international law prohibiting conventional weapons.

In fact, during the siege of Fallujah, the Marines had demanded that all civilians leave the city. However, they only allowed women, small children and old people to actually get out. They sent back all boys and men of military age. It is estimated that about 50,000 civilians remained in Fallujah when the shaking and baking was going on. Both insurgents and civilians were holed up in buildings, the former to have good firing positions against U.S. troops, the latter in an effort to save their lives. So when the white phosphorus shells were shot into such places, there was a high probability that civilians as well as insurgent fighters would be killed.

Observers estimate the death toll in Fallujah to be up to 6,000, mostly civilians. So although it may be that the Marines were not deliberately trying to hit civilians with the “Willy Pete,” it is inevitable that they would be hit. And the 1980 conventional weapons treaty (which the U.S. did not sign) explicitly forbids the use of white phosphorus in settings in which civilians cannot readily be protected from its deployment against military personnel. In other words, doing what the Marines are accused of doing in the “shake and bake” operation in Fallujah is a war crime.

Ironically, white phosphorus was one of the deadly substances that the United States accused Saddam Hussein of using against his own people. U.S. documents refer to it as one of his dreaded “chemical weapons.” Now the U.S. is descending to Saddam’s level by using the same deadly stuff it criticized him for using.

At this writing, the Iraqi government, whose preparedness to challenge the U.S. is questionable at best, is initiating an investigation of the white phosphorus charges. We can do no less than demand that the U.S. Congress do the same. But we should demand war crimes prosecutions also against the U.S. commanders and civilian leadership who, having deposed Saddam Hussein, moved so far in the direction of emulating his military methods.

Emile Schepers is a frequent contributor to the People’s Weekly World. He lives in Northern Virginia.