Wednesday, November 09, 2005

US denies using white phosphorus on Iraqi civilians

ROME (Reuters) - The U.S. military in Iraq denied a report shown on Italian state television on Tuesday saying U.S. forces used incendiary white phosphorus against civilians in a November 2004 offensive on the Iraqi town of Falluja.

It confirmed, however, that U.S. forces had dropped MK 77 firebombs -- which a documentary on Italian state-run broadcaster RAI compared to napalm -- against military targets in Iraq in March and April 2003.

The documentary showed images of bodies recovered after a November 2004 offensive by U.S. troops on the town of Falluja, which it said proved the use of white phosphorus against men, women and children who were burned to the bone.

"I do know that white phosphorus was used," said Jeff Englehart in the RAI documentary, which identified him as a former soldier in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division in Iraq.

"Burned bodies. Burned children and burned women," said Englehart, who RAI said had taken part in the Falluja offensive. "White phosphorus kills indiscriminately."

The U.S. Marines in Baghdad described white phosphorus as a "conventional munition" used primarily for smoke screens and target marking. It denied using it against civilians.

"Suggestions that U.S. forces targeted civilians with these weapons are simply wrong," U.S. Marine Major Tim Keefe said in an e-mail to Reuters. "Had the producers of the documentary bothered to ask us for comment, we would have certainly told them that the premise of the program was erroneous."

He said U.S. forces do not use any chemical weapons in Iraq.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said earlier on Tuesday he did not recall white phosphorus being used in Falluja.

An incendiary device, white phosphorus is also used to light up combat areas. The use of incendiary weapons against civilians has been banned by the Geneva Convention since 1980.

The United States did not sign the relevant protocol to the convention, a U.N. official in New York said.

The Falluja offensive aimed to crush followers of al Qaeda's Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said to have linked up with local insurgents in the Sunni Arab city west of Baghdad.

Some Western newspapers reported at the time that white phosphorus had been used during the offensive.

In the documentary called "Falluja: The Hidden Massacre," RAI also said U.S. forces used the Mark 77 firebomb.

It cited a letter it said came from British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram, saying 30 MK 77 weapons were used on military targets in Iraq between March 31 and April 2, 2003.

"The only instance of MK 77 use during (Operation Iraqi Freedom) occurred in March/April 2003 when U.S. Marines employed several bombs against legitimate military targets," Keefe said.

He said the chemical composition of the MK 77 firebomb is different from that of napalm.

RAI posted a copy of the document at: http://www.rainews24.rai.it/ran24/inchiesta/foto/documento_minis tero.jpg.

Italy has nearly 3,000 troops in Iraq despite strong opposition to their presence there.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is trailing in opinion polls ahead of April elections, and his center-left rivals have vowed to eventually pull troops out of Iraq.

RAI posted the full report, including television images, at http://www.rainews24.rai.it/ran24/inchiesta/

(Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon in London and Claudia Parsons in Baghdad)

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