The Gates of Hell
Behind the Phosphorus Clouds are War Crimes Within War Crimes (Guardian)
Although George Monbiot gives perhaps undeserved short shrift here to the Italian documentary that reignited the controversy over the American use of incendiary weapons in Fallujah, he has unearthed – along with blogger Gabriele Zamparini – smoking gun evidence of even more barbarity in the Bush-ordered destruction of the city: the use of thermobaric weapons, whose effects are even more horrendous and uncontrollable than white phosphorus.
Of course, the Pentagon has now admitted the use of WP as an attack weapon in Fallujah – after lying about this for more than year – although they say that no civilians were deliberately targeted. But surely the main point of the entire scandal is that American forces knowingly used these chemical weapons in populated areas – a practice that was bound to kill civilians, whatever the tactical intention might have been. And since Monbiot notes that there were some 30,000 to 50,000 civilians in the city – which the Americans openly treated as a "free-fire zone," pretending that it was empty of non-combatants – it is difficult to see what his problem is exactly with the WP angle of story, beyond some disagreement with some of the Italian documentary's more subjective claims. For in the end, the basic facts seem clear, and Monbiot is in agreement with them: The Americans used white phosophorus and thermobaric weapons in areas teeming with civilians during the attack on Fallujah.
In any case, here are some of the hot goods unloaded by Monbiot and Zamparini.
Excerpts: The Pentagon argues that white phosphorus burns people, rather than poisoning them, and is covered only by the protocol on incendiary weapons, which the US has not signed. But white phosphorus is both incendiary and toxic. The gas it produces attacks the mucous membranes, the eyes and the lungs. As Peter Kaiser of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told the BBC last week: "If ... the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because ... any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons."
The US army knows that its use as a weapon is illegal. In the Battle Book, published by the US Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, my correspondent David Traynier found the following sentence: "It is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets."
…. But we shouldn't forget that the use of chemical weapons was a war crime within a war crime within a war crime. Both the invasion of Iraq and the assault on Falluja were illegal acts of aggression. Before attacking the city, the marines stopped men "of fighting age" from leaving. Many women and children stayed: the Guardian's correspondent estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians were left. The marines treated Falluja as if its only inhabitants were fighters. They levelled thousands of buildings, illegally denied access to the Iraqi Red Crescent and, according to the UN's special rapporteur, used "hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population".
I have been reading accounts of the assault published in the Marine Corps Gazette. The soldiers appear to have believed everything the US government told them. One article claims that "the absence of civilians meant the marines could employ blast weapons prior to entering houses that had become pillboxes, not homes". Another said that "there were less than 500 civilians remaining in the city". It continued: "The heroics [of the marines] will be the subject of many articles and books."
But buried in this hogwash is a grave revelation. An assault weapon the marines were using had been armed with warheads containing "about 35% thermobaric novel explosive (NE) and 65% standard high explosive". They deployed it "to cause the roof to collapse and crush the insurgents fortified inside interior rooms". It was used repeatedly: "The expenditure of explosives clearing houses was enormous."
The marines can scarcely deny that they know what these weapons do. An article published in the Gazette in 2000 details the effects of their use by the Russians in Grozny. Thermobaric, or "fuel-air" weapons, it says, form a cloud of volatile gases or finely powdered explosives. "This cloud is then ignited and the subsequent fireball sears the surrounding area while consuming the oxygen in this area. The lack of oxygen creates an enormous overpressure ... Personnel under the cloud are literally crushed to death. Outside the cloud area, the blast wave travels at some 3,000 metres per second ... As a result, a fuel-air explosive can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without residual radiation ... Those personnel caught directly under the aerosol cloud will die from the flame or overpressure. For those on the periphery of the strike, the injuries can be severe. Burns, broken bones, contusions from flying debris and blindness may result. Further, the crushing injuries from the overpressure can create air embolism within blood vessels, concussions, multiple internal haemorrhages in the liver and spleen, collapsed lungs, rupture of the eardrums and displacement of the eyes from their sockets." It is hard to see how you could use these weapons in Falluja without killing civilians.
This looks to me like a convincing explanation of the damage done to Falluja, a city in which between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians might have been taking refuge. It could also explain the civilian casualties shown in the film. So the question has now widened: is there any crime the coalition forces have not committed in Iraq?.