Iraq war Crimes and phosphorus clouds

George Monbiot

We know US also used thermobaric weapons in its assault on Fallujah, where up to 50,000

civilians remained.

The media couldn’t have made a bigger pig’s ear of the white phosphorus story. So, before moving on to the new revelations from Fallujah, I would like to try to clear up the old ones. There is no hard evidence that white phosphorus was used against civilians. The claim was made in a documentary broadcast on the Italian network RAI, called Fallujah: The hidden massacre. It claimed that the corpses in the pictures it ran “showed strange injuries, some burnt to the bone, others with skin hanging from their flesh.” These assertions were supported by a human rights advocate who possessed “a biology degree.”

I, too, possess a biology degree, and I am as well qualified to determine someone’s cause of death as I am to perform open-heart surgery. So I asked Chris Milroy, professor of forensic pathology at the University of Sheffield, England, to watch the film. He reported that “nothing indicates that the bodies have been burnt”. They had turned black and lost their skin “through decomposition.” We don’t know how these people died. But there is hard evidence that white phosphorus was deployed as a weapon against combatants in Fallujah. US infantry officers confessed that they had used it to flush out insurgents. A Pentagon spokesman said that white phosphorus “was used as an incendiary weapon.” He claimed “it is not a chemical weapon. They are not outlawed or illegal.” This denial has been accepted by most of the mainstream media. UN conventions, the London Times said, “ban its use on civilian but not military targets.” But the word “civilian” does not occur in the chemical weapons convention. The use of the toxic properties of a chemical as a weapon is illegal, irrespective on whom it is used.

The Pentagon argues that white phosphorus burns people, rather than poisoning them, and is covered only by the protocol on incendiary weapons, which the US has not signed. But white phosphorus is both incendiary and toxic. The gas it produces attacks the mucous membrane, the eyes and lungs. The US army knows that its use as a weapon is illegal. The insurgents, of course, would be just as dead today if they were killed by other means. So does it matter if chemical weapons were mixed with other munitions? It does. Anyone who has seen those photos of the lines of blind veterans at the remembrance services for the first world war will surely understand the point of international law, and the dangers of undermining it.

Both the invasion of Iraq and the assault on Fallujah were illegal acts of aggression. The London-based Guardian’s correspondent estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians were left. The marines treated Fallujah as if its only inhabitants were fighters. They levelled thousands of buildings, illegally denied access to the Iraqi Red Crescent and, according to the UN’s special rapporteur, used “hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population.”

I have been reading accounts of the assault published in the Marine Corps Gazette. An assault

weapon the marines were using had been armed with warheads containing “about 35 per cent thermobaric novel explosive (NE) and 65 per cent standard high explosive.” They deployed it “to cause the roof to collapse and crush the insurgents fortified inside interior rooms.” It was used repeatedly. The marines can scarcely deny that they know what these weapons do. An article published in the Gazette in 2000 details the effects of their use by the Russians in Grozny. Thermobaric, or “fuel-air” weapons, it says, form a cloud of volatile gases or finely powdered explosives. “This cloud is then ignited and the subsequent fireball sears the surrounding area while consuming the oxygen in this area. The lack of oxygen creates an enormous overpressure. Personnel under the cloud are literally crushed to death. Outside the cloud area, the blast wave travels at some 3,000 metres per second. As a result, a fuel-air explosive can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without residual radiation.

Those personnel caught directly under the aerosol cloud will die from the flame or overpressure. For those on the periphery of the strike, the injuries can be severe. Burns, broken bones, contusions from flying debris and blindness may result. Further, the crushing injuries from the overpressure can create air embolism within blood vessels, concussions, multiple internal haemorrhages in the liver and spleen, collapsed lungs, rupture of the eardrums and displacement of the eyes from their sockets.” It is hard to see how you could

use these weapons in Fallujah without killing civilians.

This looks like a convincing explanation of the damage done to Fallujah, a city in which between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians might have been taking refuge. It could also explain the civilian casualties shown in the film. So the question has now widened: is there any crime the coalition forces have not committed in Iraq?