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Pentagon Defends Use of Toxic Agent in Iraq


The Pentagon is defending its use of white phosphorus in the battle for Fallujah last year. White phosphorus is a man-made chemical that ignites spontaneously at about 85 degrees, producing bright light and thick pillars of smoke. If the ignited particles land on a person, they can burn through the flesh, right through to the bone. This week, a Pentagon spokesman told the BBC that it was used in a so-called `shake and bake' mission.

Mr. BARRY VENABLE (Pentagon Spokesman): It was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants. One technique is to fire a white phosphorus round or rounds into the position, because the combined effects of the fire and smoke will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives.

NORRIS: The military insists that white phosphorus is legal and that it was not used to target civilians. But the admission about the exercise in Fallujah has sparked a debate about the use and legality of the weapon. To sort through all this, we're joined by John Pike, director and founder of GlobalSecurity.org.

John, thanks for being with us.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director and Founder, GlobalSecurity.org): Good to be here.

NORRIS: First, tell us about this weapon, white phosphorus.

Mr. PIKE: Well, white phosphorus produces smoke that can be used for various things: to hide your own movement, to mark a target. And it's also an incendiary weapon. These little particles of white phosphorus are extremely hot, very difficult to extinguish. And you would use it as an anti-materiel weapon to set things on fire and as an anti-personnel weapon to burn people. And as they said, people are quite fearful of this weapon, and if they see it coming their way, they'll run away from it.

NORRIS: Well, help us understand how and why the military used this chemical in Fallujah.

Mr. PIKE: Well, I think that it's important not to go too quickly to that term `chemical,' because part of the controversy over the use of white phosphorus is what its legal status is. Is this a chemical weapon--which it is not--or is it an incendiary weapon--which it is? Some of the critics have gotten these things confused and tried to claim that it's a prohibited chemical weapon. It is an irritant, as most smokes are, but if you walk out of the smoke, the irritation goes away.

NORRIS: So in recent days, we've heard the military explain and defend its use of white phosphorus. But there was some initial confusion about the use of this weapon and some initial denials. Help us--could you walk through that for us, John?

Mr. PIKE: Well, the problem there is that the--shortly after the battle of Fallujah, the State Department put out a statement talking about the use of napalm in Iraq and the use of white phosphorus in Iraq. They said that the white phosphorus had only been used for illumination to light up the battlefield, and they said that the United States had not used napalm in Iraq.

Well, the problem is that both of those statements were wrong. It was admittedly, clearly used as an anti-personnel weapon in Fallujah. And the claim that napalm was not used goes to the distinction between a Xerox and a photocopy. The trademark name was not used, but a different composition that has the same effect was used for napalm. And eventually, of course, the imprecision, the economy with the truth of both of those statements was found out, and so you had sort of the second-day story, the follow-up story of where the US government is denying doing something and then having to admit that its denials were counterfactual.

NORRIS: And layered on top of this is an Italian documentary that...

Mr. PIKE: Well, these charges have been floating around for a while, but they were given new life last week by a documentary on Italian state television that drew the comparison between the American use of napalm in Vietnam and the American use of white phosphorus in the battle of Fallujah. It made some pretty outrageous claims, evidently counterfactual claims, and that was the thing that has basically set off the media firestorm in Europe.

NORRIS: And we should just truth-squad this. In that documentary, it noted that there were bodies that were found, and it was thought that they were killed...

Mr. PIKE: By white phosphorus.

NORRIS: ...in one of these white phosphorus--because of the type of burn that was left. Now is that something that...

Mr. PIKE: Well, the problem is that a white phosphorus burn is going to be at a very specific location on your body, the place where the chunk of white phosphorus hit you. The corpses that were shown in this documentary did not have that type of injury. Instead, they had discoloration, disruption of their skin over large areas of their body. That's the sort of condition that you would see on a dead person after they've been exposed to the environment for a week or 10 days, left out in the sun for too long.

But certainly the Italian documentary and the controversy that it has created has blurred that distinction in the minds of many people, created the impression that the United States is using illegal weapons, that the United States has used poison gas, that America has gassed Iraqi civilians, creating a moral equivalence with Saddam Hussein gassing Iraqi civilians. None of this is true. But given the debate that we've had over Iraq where a lot of people tend not to believe what the US government says, I'm afraid that this counterfactual piece of propaganda that was on Italian television has done a lot to damage America's reputation in Europe and around the world unjustifiably.

NORRIS: John Pike, thank you very much.

Mr. PIKE: Thank you.

NORRIS: John Pike is the director and founder of GlobalSecurity.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.