Fallujah: Shake And Bake
The Dirty War
There is evidence of massive and indiscriminate' use of a weapon banned in areas where insurgents and civilians are indistinguishable
By Trevor Royle, Diplomatic Editor
11/20/05 "The Herald" -- -- Soldiers call them bogey weapons nasty pieces of military hardware which kill or maim as efficiently as any other type of armament but in so doing push the victim into a vortex of agony and suffering. White phosphorus, or Whiskey Pete, comes into that category. On one level it's a legal military weapon. Provided that it is used against enemy soldiers as a smokescreen or battlefield illuminator, it is a useful addition to an arsenal one reason why it is available to British and US forces in Iraq. On another level, deployed as an offensive weapon and usually in secret, it causes severe blistering of the skin and mucous membranes, and if inhaled can do dreadful damage to internal organs. When US forces fired WP shells in the battle to break into the Iraqi city of Fallujah last November they knew exactly what they were doing. Combat outside daylight hours always causes problems for the attacking side. Darkness brings the kind of confusion which favours the defenders. Fired as an artillery shell, WP explodes in the air creating a bright artificial light and providing a useful smokescreen for the attacking infantry soldiers. After the battle for Fallujah the Bush administration admitted that WP had been used sparingly and had only been fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions, not at enemy fighters .
Like so much that has happened in this long, drawn-out and increasingly dirty counter-insurgency war, the use of WP was not what it seemed. Last week an Italian television documentary, Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre sounded the first blast on the whistle when it claimed that WP had been used in a massive and indiscriminate way not only against the insurgents but also against civilians. Some Iraqi doctors claimed that the victims had melted skin or that white phosphorus had burned through body tissue to leave bones exposed.
Jeff Englehart, an experienced US marine interviewed in the documentary gave a chilling account of what happens when WP is unleashed It doesn't necessarily burn clothes, but it will burn the skin underneath clothes. And this is why protective masks do not help, because it will burn right through the mask . It will manage to get inside your face. If you breathe it, it will blister your throat and your lungs until you suffocate, and then it will burn you from the inside. It basically reacts to skin, oxygen and water. The only way to stop the burning is with wet mud. But at that point, it's just impossible to stop.
Denials came thick and fast from Washington but these were given short shrift when a semi-official US army publication, Field Artillery Magazine, published a damning article claiming the exact opposite. What gave the article substance was that it was based on an official army account which has been seen by the Sunday Herald: a Memorandum for Record prepared on December 1, 2004 by the FSE (fire support element) of the US Task Force's 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. In the paper the US artillery commanders, two officers and a sergeant, admitted that WP had been used in an offensive capacity against Iraqi positions : We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psycho logical weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes . We fired shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE [high explosive] to take them out.
In other words WP had been fired to force Iraqis out of their defensive positions or hiding places to enable them to be gunned down by conventional weapons. With shake and bake , the terminology camouflages the reality of what happens when exploding phosphorus comes into contact with bodies.
In the midst of the fighting, civilians were caught up in the action. Fallujah was a break-in battle with US forces hitting the opposition as hard as possible at their weakest points in order to get their soldiers inside the enemy perimeter quickly and efficiently.
In those circumstances, the difference between insurgents and civilians was bound to be blurred . In the aftermath there were complaints that ordinary Iraqis had been killed by US forces.
Hard-bitten soldiers might say that in actions like Fallujah, civilian casualties are an unavoidable, though unhappy, consequence of that kind of combat. But if WP was used in Fallujah, more than moral lines were crossed. Under the terms of protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons to which the US is a signatory, the use of incendiary weapons against civilians is expressly forbidden.
The proper use of WP seems clear-cut, but in the mayhem created by counter-insurgency warfare the lines become blurred, not least in this case because most of the Iraqi fighters did not wear uniforms and were indistinguishable from civilians. As a recently retired US officer with experience of Iraq explained, weapons like WP are no respecters of persons. In the heat of combat when nerves are jangling there's not much time for circumspection, and split-second decisions always bring consequences, he told the Sunday Herald. Like anything else of its kind, WP's a dumb weapon which depends on the guy firing it. If he aims at an insurgent target and civilians are killed, is he to blame or is it just down to the circumstances of the battlefield?
Any attempt to address that conundrum has to take account of the equation which commanders bring to fighting in built-up areas where there are civilians . While there are protocols in the Geneva Conventions to protect civilians in warfare, all too often these are honoured in the breach as any account of recent internecine fighting in Africa will reveal. In Iraq the coalition forces have done their best to avoid civilian casualties. Not only is the unlawful killing of non-military personnel a crime under military law but it is counter-productive in the war to win hearts and minds. Even so, most commanders admit that they operate a rough-and-ready system of proportionality whereby it is considered inevitable that some civilians will be caught up in fighting and that many will be killed.
Show me a soldier who enjoys killing non-combatants and I'll show you a military illiterate, said the Sunday Herald's military source. No one in Fallujah set out to kill ordinary Iraqis but the type of battle and the intensity of the fighting in that town made it almost inevitable that there would be civilians among the KIAs [killed in action]. Regrettable, yes; avoidable, no.
The revelation of the use of WP against civilians has led to the usual calls for an inquiry and for something to be done to avoid a repetition of the occurrence. As a first step Iraq's human rights minister, Narmin Othman, has been made responsible for an investigation which will try to determine if WP was used at Fallujah and, if so, whether it was used against civilians. It is a laudable motive but even if there is a full and fair investigation involving the people of Fallujah as witnesses it is doubtful if there will be any realistic conclusion. Because the US has a good record in battlefield management it will be easy to prove if WP was fired. But uncovering the truth about the identity of the targets will be nigh impossible.
In that respect, WP will join the list of weapons which sit uneasily on the dividing line between being legal and illegal or dubiously moral and downright immoral. Many weapons come into this category. In the first world war machine-gunners could expect little mercy if they fell into the hands of the enemy . Soldiers firing flame-throwers in the second world war also came into that category . Napalm caused equal revulsion in Vietnam and became an icon of American frightfulness. In Iraq, WP fills a similar function as do cluster bombs and Mk 77 incendiary bombs .
As became evident last week, it is undeniable that WP was used against Iraqis in the battle for Fallujah which involved US forces in the fiercest urban fighting since the battle for Hue City in Vietnam in 1968. Innocents were killed, and the use of these weapons has been denied or covered up . Past experience suggests that it will be difficult to find out the reasons for using WP or if civilians were among the victims.
From the shooting down of a clearly identified RAF Tornado aircraft in the early days of the war, to the treatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the US forces in Iraq have not been adept at holding up their hands to admit responsibility when things go wrong. Nobody has acknowledged responsibility for the recent killing of Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi detainee, while he was in CIA custody in Abu Ghraib and, at the very moment that the use of WP was being denied, the US was having to confront fresh evidence that Sunni prisoners were being maltreated in an interior ministry punishment complex at Jadriyah in Baghdad.
A year ago at Fallujah, the smokescreen laid down by US forces eventually cleared into thin air. In the same way the stink about WP will also die down and gradually be forgotten except, perhaps, by the victims who were left with burns so deep that even their bones were exposed. Surgery might help to make them whole again but no amount of politician's bluster will explain why the fire support element of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd US Infantry locked and loaded WP in their artillery pieces and fired them into an Iraqi city to shake and bake its unwitting inhabitants.