Skip to comments.Ablution Exclusive: Weapons Expert Challenges White Phosphorus Claims
Posted on 11/09/2005 10:02:51 AM PST by areafiftyone
Predictably, the "US used chemical weapons at Fallujah" story is spreading like phosphorus fire, and the Independent reprises its coverage today.
Interestingly, a careful reading of the latest Indy article (though not in the print edition, where the crucial section has been omitted, apparently due to a production error), especially when combined with a viewing of the RAI video that was the catalyst for the story (and a bit of research), casts grave doubt on the contention that the horrible injuries pictured were in fact the result of phosphorus bombs.
Writing for the Independent, Andrew Buncombe summarises the claim made by the video - which, as we saw yesterday, consisted solely of interviews with, and images produced by, prominent anti-war activists, but no independent scientists or military experts:
"Photographic evidence gathered from the aftermath of the battle suggests that women and children were killed by horrific burns caused by the white phosphorus shells dropped by US forces."
"Photographs obtained by RAI from the Studies Centre of Human Rights in Fallujah, show the bodies of dozens of Fallujah residents whose skin has been dissolved or caramelised by the effects of the phosphorus shells. The use of incendiary weapons against civilian targets is banned by treaty."
The certainty of the statement "by the effects of phosphorus shells" is notable.
Yesterday's Independent article, following the lead of the RAI broadcast, made much of the fact that clothing was intact on many of the burned bodies:
"Provided by the Studies Centre of Human Rights in Fallujah, dozens of high-quality, colour close-ups show bodies of Fallujah residents, some still in their beds, whose clothes remain largely intact but whose skin has been dissolved or caramelised or turned the consistency of leather by the shells.
"A biologist in Fallujah, Mohamad Tareq [in actuality, but as unreported by the Independent, the director of "the Studies Centre of Human Rights"], interviewed for the film, says: 'A rain of fire fell on the city, the people struck by this multi-coloured substance started to burn, we found people dead with strange wounds, the bodies burned but the clothes intact.'"
The implication is that intact clothing constitutes a unique aspect of "appalling burns that are the signature of this weapon", as the lead paragraph put it.
Antiwar activist Jeff Englehart (who is, unbeknownst to Independent readers "the mouthpiece for a group of soldiers who are fighting in a war they oppose for a president they didn't elect while the petrochemical complex turns the blood of their fallen comrades into oil"), the only former soldier interviewed about phosphorus use, agrees:
"It doesn't necessarily burn clothes, but it will burn the skin underneath the clothes."
Given the considerable stress laid on the non-burning of clothes by both the Independent and the RAI film, it seems odd that this statement, from today's Indy article, is passed over without comment:
"John Pike, director of the Washington-based military studies group GlobalSecurity.Org, said the smoke caused by the bombs could confuse or blind the enemy or mark a target. 'If it hits your clothes it will burn your clothes and if it hits your skin it will just keep on burning,' he said."
"If it hits your clothes, it will burn your clothes". Well, that certainly seems to undermine the assertions about intact clothes - it seems unlikely that a victim's face could be completely "caramelised" by the heat, while clothing just inches away was unscathed. Unfortunately, it's (intentionally?) not clear from context in the article whether Mr. Pike is talking about phosphorus, napalm, or both. So I asked him:
Daily Ablution: "Were you referring to white phosphorus or napalm?"
John Pike: "White Phosphorus."
Referring to another quote from yesterday's Independent story, I asked:
Daily Ablution: "Are burns caused by white phosphorus consistent with 'bodies burned but clothes intact'?"
John Pike: "No."
Here's more, from the Emergency War Surgery NATO Handbook:
"Many antipersonnel weapons employed in modern warfare contain white phosphorus. Fragments of this metal, which ignite upon contact with the air, may be driven into the soft tissues; however, most of the cutaneous injury resulting from phosphorus burns is due to the ignition of clothing, and is treated as conventional thermal injury."
So ... most cutaneous injury caused by this commonly used weapon results from "the ignition of clothing". This, along with Mr. Pike's observation, casts grave doubt upon a key basis for the assertions that phosphorus was used.
It's not clear just what the images in the RAI video show, but, based on the intact clothing, this evidence suggests that it something other than charred phosphorus victims. While he hasn't seen the video, and so couldn't comment directly about it, Mr. Pike told me that the Indy's description of "clothes largely intact but skin dissolved, caramelised or turned the consistency of leather" sounded like "generic corpses" that had been exposed to the environment for a couple of weeks.
However, one doubts that this aspect of the story will get a great deal of coverage.
UPDATE: Yesterday's post provides some useful background.
It's understandable that the Independent would eagerly repeat claims that "US forces 'used chemical weapons' during assault on city of Fallujah" (headline); it's also understandable that, in its eagerness to present just one side of the story, it would omit easily retrievable information that calls into question the credibility of those providing "proof" that "phosphorus shells were widely deployed in [Fallujah] as a weapon".
In fact, a look at the backgrounds of all sources quoted for the story - which is based on photos, videos and interviews to be broadcast in an Italian television documentary - shows each of them to have affiliations and motives that suggest a clear political agenda, one which is completely unreported by the Indy's Peter Popham. While such affiliations and motives do not of course disprove the claims, it's the duty of a responsible reporter to reveal them, in order that the reader may make a fully informed assessment.
While he apparently doesn't consider it part of the "powerful new evidence" that US forces used "massive quantities of white phosphorus" in the attack on Fallujah last November, Mr. Popham is unable to resist repeating allegations on Shiekh al-Qaradawi's Islam Online site that "US troops are reportedly using chemical weapons and poisonous gas in its large-scale offensive on the Iraqi resistance bastion of Fallujah, a grim reminder of Saddam Husseins alleged gassing of the Kurds in 1988" (according to unnamed "resistance" sources).
Nowhere else is the term "chemical weapons", quoted in the headline, to be found; nor is any further mention of gas made in the Indy story, which goes on to quote the Pentagon as saying that phosphorus, which is not banned, was used for illumination and not as a weapon.
The Independent quickly moves on to address the "graphic proof":
"But now new information has surfaced, including hideous photographs and videos and interviews with American soldiers who took part in the Fallujah attack, which provides graphic proof that phosphorus shells were widely deployed in the city as a weapon.
"In a documentary to be broadcast by RAI, the Italian state broadcaster, this morning, a former American soldier who fought at Fallujah says: 'I heard the order to pay attention because they were going to use white phosphorus on Fallujah. In military jargon it's known as Willy Pete.'
"'Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone ... I saw the burned bodies of women and children. Phosphorus explodes and forms a cloud. Anyone within a radius of 150 metres is done for.'"
What the Mr. Popham should have mentioned, but didn't, is that the "former American soldier" is one Jeff Englehart, a prominent antiwar activist. Mr. Englehart's website, "Fight to Survive", is in his words "the mouthpiece for a group of soldiers who are fighting in a war they oppose for a president they didn't elect while the petrochemical complex turns the blood of their fallen comrades into oil" - and is decorated with the following charming graphic:
It's worth mentioning that the documentary that constitutes the "new information" includes, along with brief appearances by kidnapped Communist reporter Giuliana Sgrena and Paola Gasparoli (a researcher for "pacifist human rights monitoring group Occupation Watch") an interview with only one other soldier - Garett Reppenhagen, another antiwar activist who was on the Veterans for Peace Impeachment Tour with Cindy Sheehan from the very beginning.
The Independent article continues:
"Photographs on the website of RaiTG24, the broadcaster's 24-hours news channel, www.rainews24.it, show exactly what the former soldier means. Provided by the Studies Centre of Human Rights in Fallujah, dozens of high-quality, colour close-ups show bodies of Fallujah residents, some still in their beds, whose clothes remain largely intact but whose skin has been dissolved or caramelised or turned the consistency of leather by the shells. [The photographs have been removed from the RAI site.]
"A biologist in Fallujah, Mohamad Tareq, interviewed for the film, says: 'A rain of fire fell on the city, the people struck by this multi-coloured substance started to burn, we found people dead with strange wounds, the bodies burned but the clothes intact.'"
It may just be me, but I can't help but think that Independent readers would have been better served had they been informed that Mr. Tareq was not only "a biologist in Fallujah", but also the director of the aforementioned "Studies Centre of Human Rights in Fallujah", an organisation whose focus is to promote war crimes charges against the Americans. (It's not clear whether the centre has any other members - it's quite likely that it consists of Mr. Tareq, two mobile phones, and an email address.)
Incidentally, even if the assertions and imagery of the documentary are correct, the Independent's statements concerning "massive quantities" and "widely deployed" use remain unsubstantiated. While claiming that phosphorus was used, Mr. Englehard gives no indication of how much was involved, or how often. The videos purportedly made at Fallujah on November 8 appear to show only two incidents, both seemingly repeated for visual effect, for a total of about 20 seconds of tape.
So it appears that the phosphorus claims consist entirely of the testimony of one disaffected ex-soldier, some comments and a few seconds of video provided by a cattle biologist, and, from the same source, some photos that could easily have been manipulated. Again, this is not to say that the claims are necessarily false - but it does call into question their completely uncritical reporting by the Independent.
The article goes on:
"The documentary, entitled Fallujah: the Hidden Massacre, also provides what it claims is clinching evidence that incendiary bombs known as Mark 77, a new, improved form of napalm, was used in the attack on Fallujah, in breach of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of 1980, which only allows its use against military targets."
The documentary, which I've viewed (Windows streaming video, in English), provides no such evidence. What it does report is a statement from the UK Defence Ministry to former MP and Stop the War Coalition featured speaker Alice Mahon - the only other person, apart from those mentioned above, that was interviewed for the film - which is cited as saying (as reported in entirety, my transcript):
"I regret to tell you that I am sincerely sorry that this is not the truth, and that now we must correct it. The USA destroyed their arsenal of napalm used in Vietnam in 2001; but, emerging from new military reports from marines in service in 2003, it shows that MK 77 was used. The incendiary bomb MK 77 does not have the same composition as napalm, but it has the same destructive effect. The Pentagon has informed us that these devices are not generally used in areas where civilians are present."
As you can see, this statement provides no "clinching evidence" - indeed, no evidence whatsoever - that the "new, improved" napalm was ever used at Fallujah. Nor is it evidence of any use on other than military targets. Furthermore, the US (like France) is specifically not bound by the incendiary weapons protocol of the UN convention referred to.
Considering all of the above, one has to wonder about Mr. Popham's suitability as a reporter. Was he simply unaware of, and unable to locate, the affiliations and special interests of the documentary's military interviewees? Did he just not bother? Did he not realise that to call the MK 77 report "clinching evidence" of "napalm" use at Fallujah was a vast exaggeration?
Of course, it's entirely possible that he was very well aware of the facts, choosing not to mention them for fear that the credibility of those quoted - and the impact of his story - would be called into question.
UPDATE: One last thought. I'm by no means a military expert, but shouldn't phosphorus be classified as an incendiary agent, rather than as a chemical one? It seems to me much more like a conventional weapon than does chlorine, nerve gas, or other chemical WMD.
UPDATE: Wednesday - in an interview with the Ablution, a weapons expert specifically cited by the Indy debunks the primary evidence for phosphorus attacks (the clothed bodies).
Just about everything we fight with are chemical, gunpowder, nitroglycerin, TNT, WP and HE are all chemicals, Our enemies throw the same thing at us.
You can't use that stuff, keep it up and someone's gonna put an eye out.
The rats have to have enough of these types of story on-going at all times so that when one is debunked they can immediately switch to the next one. You know how many of these Rat stories have been in the MSM during the past 12 months?
Poor DU. They wanted a War Crimes Tribunal for this.
Just about everything we fight with are chemical, gunpowder, nitroglycerin, TNT, WP and HE are all chemicals, Our enemies throw the same thing at us.Soap is a chemical. So is water. If we spray them on anti-war protestors, are we using chemical weapons?
We are using "elemental" weapons as well....LEAD!
Spraying Right-Guard on them is considered assault.
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