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November 11, 2005

Who's Misinforming Whom About White Phosphorus?


by Mark Rothschild

What is the truth about the charge that "banned weapons" (such as the napalm-like white phosphorus) are being used in Iraq specifically that they were used during the November 2004 Battle of Fallujah? The U.S. Department of State has addressed this through its "Truth Squad" Web site, which debunks "misinformation" and anti-American slurs. The State Department's Truth Squad is called the "counter-misinformation team."

As the Truth Squad points out, an important distinction must be made between the lawful use of white phosphorus as an illuminator and the use of white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon. The use of white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon is against U.S. policy; however, its use as an illuminator is lawful.

According to the Truth Squad's official statement,

"Phosphorus shells are not outlawed. U.S. forces have used them very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters."

However, the U.S. Army itself disagrees with the State Department and says that it does use white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon (see "The Fight for Fallujah" [.pdf] in the U.S. Army's Field Artillery magazine, March-April 2005 edition).

Indeed, Field Artillery magazine puts white phosphorus at the head of its list of useful anti-personnel weapons deployed in Fallujah:

"a. Range of Munitions. The munitions at our disposal gave us excellent flexibility.

"b. White Phosphorus. WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive]. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out."

Note: "The Fight for Fallujah" and Field Artillery magazine are official publications of the U.S. Army. The State Department's Truth Squad Web site (called the "Identifying Misinformation" collection) is, in its own words:

"[W]ritten by the U.S. Department of State's counter-misinformation team, which has 12 years of experience in this area. It has extensive experience in researching deliberate disinformation spread by countries such the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, as well as urban legends and conspiracy theories."

Ultimately, the Bush administration cannot continue to hold out what are essentially two versions of the truth about white phosphorus. The State Department's Web site on "misinformation" should correct itself.

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Mark Rothschild lives and writes from Los Angeles, California. Comments or questions are welcome.

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