Chemical weapons in Iraq? An old story, but new questions

Italy's state-run television network says that the U.S. used white phosphorus on human targets in Fallujah. The Pentagon has denied it.

Published November 8, 2005 2:10PM (EST)

Has the United States used chemical weapons in Iraq?

That charge has been made repeatedly -- and carefully denied just as often -- over the past two years. There was an accusation that the United States used napalm in the first days of the war. The Pentagon denied it, but then admitted that U.S. troops had, in fact, used a "napalm-like" substance in Mark-77 bombs during their march to Baghdad. After the offensive in Fallujah a year ago, there were charges that U.S. troops had used white phosphorus shells against human targets there. The U.S. denied those charges too, admitting that it had used phosphorus shells "very sparingly in Fallujah" but only "for illumination purposes." And on Sept. 11 of this year, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed that U.S. troops had used chemical weapons during fighting in Tal Afar. The United States issued another denial, calling Zarqawi's claims a "standard disinformation technique."

The U.S. denials may all be correct, at least technically so. But a broadcast this week by the Italian state television network, RAI, is raising the question all over again. As the BBC and the Independent are reporting today, the RAI report alleges that the United States used both white phosphorus and the "napalm-like" Mark-77 bombs during the Fallujah assault in November 2004.

The RAI report relies on the words of a former U.S. soldier who said he fought at Fallujah and heard a warning that white phosphorus was about to be used there; the claims of a biologist in Fallujah, who says that a "rain of fire" fell on the city; and photographs, posted on RAI's Web site, that purport to show the burned bodies of Fallujah residents. RAI charges that the use of white phosphorus as a weapon rather than as an illuminating device would constitute the illegal use of a chemical weapon.

So far as we can tell, the mainstream press in the United States hasn't picked up on the story, but the international press certainly has. Al Jazeera has posted the BBC's story on its English-language Web site, complete with graphic photos from RAI.

There's no new response from the Pentagon yet. In the denial issued late last year, the Pentagon insisted that, in Fallujah, white phosphorus shells "were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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