Weapons of War
History of WP
White Phosphorus, popularly known as “Willie Pete” to soldiers, first reared its head in World War II. Many analysts and military specialists say it should have been banned generations ago. But the reality is, the chemical substance is still being used packed into an artillery shell, which then explodes over a target in a white glare that can illuminate enemy positions.
What makes its use controversial is that it bursts into balls of flaming chemical particles, which cling to anything and everything, burning until the oxygen supply is extinguished. It reportedly can burn inside a human body for hours.
White Phosphorus gained worldwide notoriety during the initial bombing campaign by the United States in Iraq and in the Falluja operation in the fall of 2004.
Under the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Protocol III, White Phosphorus was banned for use on civilian populations. The United States did not ratify protocol III.
When employed, the bomb bursts into hundreds of phosphorus crystals that can cause extensive, deep and painful burns. These types of burns carry a greater risk of death because they burrow into the body and do not extinguish unless oxygen is deprived. The body eventually absorbs the chemical, which can lead to liver, heart and kidney damage.
The American military was accused of using WP in their 2004 offensive in Fallujah to weed out alleged insurgents holed up in the city. The Pentagon did not deny that the illuminate was employed, however, officials later stated that earlier denials were wrong. The US military did indeed fire WP, but not as weapons.
The assault took place for two weeks in November 2004 as American commanders felt the city had become an insurgent stronghold. US commanders ordered the 300,000 civilians out of the city ahead of the offensive. At least 50 American troops and approximately 1,200 suspected insurgents were killed in battle. The exact number of civilians killed remains a mystery.
An Italian documentary shown by the state broadcaster RAI titled “Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre” in November 2005 – almost one-year exactly after the 2004 offensive – claimed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, had been killed as a result of WP.
Washington’s official line has been that the weapons were used only to illuminate the battlefield and to provide smoke for camouflage.
Yet, the American claims have come under fire in the three years since the Falluja mission, as US soldiers have spoken out leaving the official line under scrutiny. In an article published in the March/April 2005 issue of the US Army’s Field Artillery Magazine, a captain, a first lieutenant and a sergeant, seem to assert that WP was used as more than simply illumination and camouflage.
“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 where we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosives]. We fired ‘shake and back’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out,” the article revealed.
An examination by The Independent of the evidence surrounding the use of WP insinuates that the weapon was indeed fired at insurgents, “that reports from the battleground suggest troops firing these WP shells did not always know who they were hitting and that there remain widespread reports of civilians suffering extensive burn injuries.”
The evidence suggests that even if American commanders claims that they were not firing WP as a weapon, which is legal under international law, the indiscriminate nature of the use of WP appears to give credence to the reports that WP in fact killed civilians.
Lebanon 2006: WP & Cluster Bombs
The United Nations confirmed hundreds of Israeli cluster bomb strikes across southern Lebanon, including villages and civilian centers, during the 34-day war in July and August 2006.
Cluster bombs were a weapon of choice for the Israeli military. These bombs, when they explode, often leave dozens of tiny bomblets that can cause collateral damage and deaths to civilians months and even years after the cessation of violence.
The UN mandated peacekeeping force is attempting to remove all remnants of the cluster bombs before more unnecessary deaths are caused.
The head of the United Nations Mine Action Service in the south of the country, Chris Clark, has confirmed 59 casualties in total. The teams working on the clean up have said that there could be about 2,000 potentially deadly bombs have been destroyed.
“I’m not aware of how far that process has gone. But all I can say is that I haven’t got that information at the moment,” Clark said, when asked whether Israel has given the UN a list of sites that they targeted with cluster bombs during the 34-day war.
The Lebanese government also accused Israel of using White Phosphorus shells on the civilian population in during the 34-day bombardment of the country in July/August 2006. Tel Aviv has vehemently denied “any use of illegal weapons,” but did not refute using WP.
Dr. Bachir Cham, in Sidon, says that he saw numerous bodies that came to his hospital that showed evidence that something was awry in the types of weapons that were used by the Israeli military.
“If you burnt someone with petrol their hair would burn and their skin would burn down to the bone most likely,” Cham argues. “But this is different, in some bodies I saw deposits of crystals that had some sort of chemical material.”
Cham is certain that there was something in the bombs that was not supposed to be present. “The Institute of Criminology in Frankfurt has confirmed that there was some sort of chemical in the bombs, and while I believe it is White Phosphorus, we have not gotten a second opinion as of yet,” Cham continues.
Marc Garlasco, a military analyst with Human Rights Watch, said he saw spent White Phosphorus containers on the ground during his time in Lebanon during the 2006 war.
“I came across spent WP canisters in the fields [in southern Lebanon], including artillery shells. We also discovered shells that had apparently misfired and contained WP inside,” Garlasco revealed.
He said that many of the canisters were in open spaces and villages. The scorched earth that he witnessed proves that WP was employed by the Israel military, but as in Falluja the difficulty is proving what capacity the weapon was used.
“It [WP] was clearly used, but in what capacity? We don’t know how it was used. A lot of stuff makes fire so to narrow it down to WP is difficult,” Garlasco added, referring to the evidence of incendiary weaponry having fallen on Lebanon.
Rules of Law
Both the 1925 Geneva Protocol on the use of poisonous gases and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibit the use of chemical weapons in armed conflict.
Although the United States is party to both treaties, WP munitions can be argued to remain outside these treaties parameters because their uses for marking or illumination targets, and not for strictly lethal use.
Weapons such as this are allowed under the CWC as “military purposes not connected with the use of chemical weapons and not dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare” (Article II.9(c)).
If the international community, and Washington, want to see these weapons, such as WP and Napalm, banned from military use in the CWC, it must be established that WP a) is a toxic chemical or precursor chemical; and b) was used for purposes by the CWC.
The quandary is whether the harmful effects of fire and smoke produced by WP constitute “chemical action on life processes” as defined by the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC.
The CWC further details what defines a toxic chemical as “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals” (Article II.2).
Many of the arguments against the US military in Iraq has been that there was a violation of Protocol III of the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons. But, the United States is not a party to this protocol.
Protocol III forbids in all circumstances a) making the civilian population, individual civilians, and civilian objects the object of attack by incendiary weapons; and b) any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons (Articles 2.1 and 2.2).
It adds prohibition the making of “any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by means of incendiary weapons other than air-delivered incendiary weapons, except when such military objective is clearly separated from the concentration of civilians and all feasible precautions are taken with a view to limiting the incendiary effects to the military objective and to avoiding, and in any event, minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects” (Article 2.3).
The US military’s continual position is that it is permissible to employ WP as incendiary weapons against enemy combatants, which fit into the evidence of how WP was used in Fallujah.
Aftermath: Ending the use of Certain Weapons
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has pressed for the end of weapons that are more susceptible to larger civilian casualties. They state that when incendiary weapons are used, “particular care must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”
Following the ICRC lead, Congress tried to pass legislation that would limit and ban weapons that due unnecessary and detrimental harm to civilians.
Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a bill in February 2007 that would drastically inhibit the United States from selling and transferring bombs that did not have a low error rate and those deemed too old.
The Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2007, which was defeated, would allow for bombs to be used against “clearly defined military targets and not where civilians are known to be present.”
Leahy, in introducing the bill on the Senate floor, said “the Feinstein-Leahy bill does not prohibit the use or export of cluster munitions. Rather, it would set a standard for the reliability that is the same as what the Pentagon now requires for new procurements of these weapons.”
The bill would have banned all cluster munitions that fall below a 99 percent failure rate, an obvious reference to the Lebanon war that saw Israel drop hundreds of thousands of bomblets over southern Lebanon.
However, Leahy said that the President would still be allowed to override the requirement on cluster bombs “if he certifies that doing so is vital to protect the security of the United States, and he submits a report describing the steps that will be taken to protect civilians and the failure rate of the cluster munitions to be used or sold.”
Rights groups were quick to praise the bill, including Human Rights Watch, which has documented many wars across the globe and the weapons used. The organization said that the bill put the US “at the forefront of global efforts to eliminate weapons that have killed and maimed thousands of civilians.”
For then Senators Clinton and Biden, weapons were not on their minds. All three voted against the proposed legislation, most likely not wanting to anger the powerful Jewish lobby ahead of primaries.
In an article published by The Hill in February 2007, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hadar Susskind, said he believes that international human rights groups are seen as anti-Israel, which probably has a large impact on how presidential hopefuls voted.
“They are sensitive [the Jewish Lobby] to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty reports that, for better or for worse, are often seen as one-sided or skewed by folks within the Jewish community,” Susskind said.
For his part, President Barrack Obama voted for the legislation.
**An in depth look at Israel’s use of WP and cluster bombs in Gaza 2008-9 will be next in the series on weapons of war