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U.S. Admits: Phosphorus may have killed civilians in Iraq

November 17, 2005

By Guy Dinmore in Washington

The US military on Wednesday acknowledged it might have killed civilians in the Iraqi city of Falluja with white phosphorus munitions during the battle against insurgents a year ago. The Pentagon insisted civilians had not been targeted, however, and that it had avoided unnecessary casualties by evacuating the city before the offensive.

White phosphorus, which is fired by artillery or mortars, can be used as an incendiary device or to create a smokescreen.

While it is not classified as a chemical weapon, the chemical is covered by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against military forces located within concentrations of civilians – as was the case with the insurgents in Falluja. The US is party to the convention but, unlike a number of its allies, including the UK, it has not signed Protocol III.

Last week, Italy’s Rai 24 news channel broadcast a documentary that alleged many civilians had been burned to death by the incendiary devices during the assault. It showed bodies burned to the bone inside clothes that remained intact.

Narmin Uthman, Iraq’s acting human rights minister, said an Iraqi team would investigate the claims.

“The documentary offers no compelling evidence as to how the people in the various images actually died,” Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, told the FT. He said he was not aware of any US inquiry into the issue.

Asked if it was possible civilians had been killed by white phosphorus, he replied: “It would not be out of the realm of the possible.”

The UK defence ministry said the British army only used white phosphorus for smokescreens.

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