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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Iraq probes US phosphorus weapons

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Iraq probes US phosphorus weapons Iraq probes US phosphorus weapons
An Iraqi human rights team has gone to the city of Falluja to investigate the use of white phosphorus as a weapon by US forces, a minister has told the BBC.

Acting Human Rights Minister Narmin Uthman said her staff would examine the possible effects on civilians.

The US has now admitted using white phosphorus as a weapon in Falluja last year, after earlier denying it.

The substance can cause burning of the flesh but is not illegal and is not classified as a chemical weapon.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Baghdad says it will be some time before the human rights team reports back.

The US had previously said that white phosphorus had been used only to light up enemy positions.

BBC defence correspondent Paul Wood says having to retract its denial is a public relations disaster for the US.

In other developments in Iraq:

* Sunni parties demand an international inquiry into the alleged abuse of more than 170 detainees by Iraqi forces in Baghdad.

* Three US soldiers are killed in a roadside bomb near Baghdad

* A car bomb kills a US marine in Karmah, 80km (50 miles) west of Baghdad.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt Col Barry Venable, confirmed to the BBC the US had used white phosphorus "as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants" - though not against civilians, he said.

He said earlier denials had been based on "poor information".

Washington is not a signatory to an international treaty restricting the use of the substance against civilians.

The US-led assault in November 2004 on Falluja - a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency west of Baghdad - displaced most of the city's 300,000 population and left many of its buildings destroyed.

'Particularly nasty'

San Diego journalist Darrin Mortenson, who was embedded with US marines during the assault on Falluja, told the BBC's Today radio programme he had seen white phosphorous used "as an incendiary weapon" against insurgents.


WHITE PHOSPHORUS
Spontaneously flammable chemical used for battlefield illumination
Contact with particles causes burning of skin and flesh
Use of incendiary weapons prohibited for attacking civilians (Protocol III of Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons)
Protocol III not signed by US

However, he "never saw anybody intentionally use any weapon against civilians", he said.

White phosphorus is highly flammable and ignites on contact with oxygen. If the substance hits a person's body, it will burn until deprived of oxygen.

Globalsecurity.org, a defence website, says: "Phosphorus burns on the skin are deep and painful... These weapons are particularly nasty because white phosphorus continues to burn until it disappears... it could burn right down to the bone."

A spokesman at the UK Ministry of Defence said the use of white phosphorus was permitted in battle in cases where there were no civilians near the target area.

But Professor Paul Rodgers, of the University of Bradford's department of peace studies, said white phosphorus could be considered a chemical weapon if deliberately aimed at civilians.

He told PM: "It is not counted under the chemical weapons convention in its normal use but, although it is a matter of legal niceties, it probably does fall into the category of chemical weapons if it is used for this kind of purpose directly against people."

An Italian documentary revealing the use of white phosphorus in Iraq sparked fury among Italian anti-war protesters, who demonstrated outside the US embassy in Rome earlier this month.

Iraq's human rights minister said the team was sent to Falluja after the documentary was broadcast on Rai TV in Italy.
Story from BBC NEWS:

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