Washington – The top-ranking U.S.
military officer says white phosphorous is an appropriate
battlefield weapon and emphasized that American troops take
great care to avoid targeting civilians during combat.
“White phosphorous is a legitimate
tool of the military,” Marine Corps General Peter
Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during
a Pentagon news conference November 29, responding to a
reporter’s question about the use of white phosphorous
An Italian television station on November
8 aired a documentary discussing the use of white phosphorous
by U.S. troops in Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004. The documentary
called white phosphorous a “chemical weapon,”
and said it was used against civilians during the battle
to capture the insurgent stronghold. Other news organizations
have repeated the allegations, which are incorrect, according
to U.S. military officials.
Defense Department officials have confirmed
U.S. troops used white phosphorous munitions against insurgents
during Operation Al Fajr in Fallujah, according to a November
30 release by the American Forces Information Service. However,
officials refuted media reports that U.S. forces targeted
civilians or used the substance as an incendiary weapon.
The substance ignites when exposed to air and can cause
“It is used for two primary purposes,”
Pace told reporters. “One is to mark a location for
strike by an aircraft, for example. The other is to be used
-- because it does create white smoke -- to be used as a
screening agent so that you can move your forces without
being seen by the enemy.”
However, “it is not a chemical weapon,”
Pace stressed, adding that “it is well within the
law of war to use those weapons as they are being used for
marking and for screening.”
During the news conference, Pace called
white phosphorus an “incendiary weapon,” but
a subsequent legal review by the Defense Department prompted
a clarification. “It is not an incendiary weapon as
defined by the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons,”
the Defense Department said in a statement accompanying
an official transcript of Pace’s news briefing.
In a follow-up question, a reporter asked
Pace if white phosphorous is an appropriate weapon for a
densely populated urban setting.
“No armed force in the world goes
to greater effort” than that of the United States
“to protect civilians and to be very precise in the
way we apply our power,” Pace told the reporters.
“A bullet goes through skin even faster than white
phosphorous does. So I would rather have the proper instrument
applied at the proper time as precisely as possible to get
the job done in a way that kills as many of the bad guys
as possible and does as little collateral damage as possible.
That is just the nature of warfare.”
In the March-April 2005 issue of Field Artillery
magazine, a U.S. Army publication, three Army members wrote
that white phosphorous was used in Fallujah in 2004 to hide
American troop movements with its white smoke. The article
also said white phosphorous was used as “a potent
psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines
and spider holes.” It said U.S. forces used white
phosphorous to flush enemy fighters into the open.
In mid-November, the British newspaper The
Independent interviewed Peter Kaiser with the Organization
for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The organization
oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Kaiser said
that when white phosphorus is used in a way that does not
rely on toxic chemical effects, but on smoke-causing and
heat effects – as it was used in Fallujah –
it is not considered a chemical weapon.
For more information about U.S. policy see