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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 13:59 GMT
Heated debate over white phosphorus
Falluja illuminated November 2004 in night attack
Has the BBC failed to report on the use of banned chemical weapons in Falluja in November 2004?

The news that the US government had changed its position on the use of white phosphorus during the assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja a year ago has been hitting the headlines across BBC outlets.

Previously, Washington had said it was used only to illuminate enemy positions at night. Now it has acknowledged that artillery rounds containing the chemical were fired at trenches, to flush out some of the 1200 suspected insurgents it says were killed.

So is white phosphorous a chemical weapon, and if so has the BBC failed to report on the use of banned weapons in Falluja, as suggested by some complainants to the BBC?

And what was the fate of Iraqi civilians in Falluja? Was the BBC right not to give more exposure than it did to the documentary broadcast on November 8 by the Italian state broadcaster Rai, accusing the US military of using white phosphorous bombs against civilians?

NewsWatch asked the BBC's defence correspondent, Paul Wood, who was embedded with the US marines at the time, for his response:

White phosphorus sticks to the skin and can burn right through to the bone. It spills out in a searing white cloud and, even for survivors, leaves painful wounds which are slow to heal.

The revelation that US forces used it as a weapon in Falluja -- after a year of denials - was clearly of massive interest. Both the terrifying nature of these munitions and the embarrassing nature of the American reversal meant this was a lead story across the BBC on both TV and radio.

But we had to be clear about what the Americans were admitting and what they were denying. They admitted firing this deadly substance at military targets but continued to deny killing civilians with it.

Crucially, their statement that white phosphorus had been used as an incendiary was not an admission that a chemical or otherwise illegal weapon had been deployed. Still less was it evidence that a massacre of civilians had taken place in Falluja.

BBC Correspondent Paul Wood
We have always at the BBC been very careful in the way in which we address claims of atrocities, massacres and war crimes
Paul Wood
BBC defence correspondent
Our coverage had to reflect these vital distinctions.

Why didn't we move on this story earlier, running the much more wide-ranging allegations in the Rai documentary, first broadcast on November 8?

Quite simply because Rai's evidence was very thin. Their report was called "Falluja: the hidden massacre" and was said to show that the Americans used chemical weapons in the city. To support this, Rai interviewed a human rights campaigner who said he had spoken to a man who said he'd found bodies after seeing "strange coloured fire".

They also interviewed a journalist who said she had spoken to refugees, who in turn knew of women who'd found a suspicious white powder in their homes.

Programme editors decided, rightly, that such second and third hand accounts were simply not convincing enough for the BBC to start running the story. The Rome bureau did however file a piece to reflect the impact on public opinion in Italy of the Rai documentary, at a time when Italy is considering whether to withdraw its troops from Iraq. In that way, the allegations did get exposure on our output.

Introducing the topic of white phosphorus, the Rai documentary said: "A chemical agent was used in a massive and indiscriminate way against districts of Falluja." Rai's evidence for this was an interview with a former US Marine, Jeff Englehart.

Blackened bodies

But while he did hear orders being given over the radio to fire white phosphorus, he was not in a position to see where it fell. In other words, he could not say if civilians were killed, or if purely military targets were hit as the Pentagon maintains, or even if the white phosphorus was being fired for smoke effects, the use that Washington has always acknowledged.

Rai also showed pictures of blackened bodies. The problem was to know what these pictures meant. Was this evidence of chemical effects, or just what happens to bodies when you leave them out in the sun?

In Falluja, as embedded journalists, we saw the bodies of insurgents turn black and bloated in a matter of 24 or 48 hours. The footage which Rai picked up appears to have been shot weeks after the battle and the bodies are presumably that old.

There is a general problem with using footage you have not shot yourself, which we had in mind as we looked at the Rai documentary. (For instance, in Chechnya, film of piles of bodies on the back of a truck was produced as evidence of a massacre in the 1999-2000 conflict. It turned out to be old footage from the first Chechen war which had been recycled and which anyway showed the bodies of Russian conscripts being taken for burial. I could give many other examples.)

Rai glosses over the problem of the provenance of its footage. The documentary sticks together a lot of different sequences from different places - I even recognise some of my own Falluja pictures - with no on-screen "astons" to identify date and source.

US soldiers in Falluja
An Iraqi government team is now examining the impact of the American bombardment on civilians
So, arguing that large numbers of civilians were trapped in Falluja under bombardment last November, Rai shows a very moving image of a small boy in hospital, his left leg blown off below the knee.

His anguished mother, dressed in black abeya, asks: "Is this an insurgent? Is this child Zarqawi" I recognised this as agency footage from June 2004, when the Americans - who were then outside Falluja - carried out air strikes to try to kill the Al-Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. I remembered the pictures because I used them myself in a piece I did then about the resulting civilian casualties.

This matters because the international convention on the use of incendiary weapons says they should not be used where civilians are concentrated. The Americans argued that the city was largely empty - and indeed we saw very few civilians as we travelled around Falluja. (The Americans have not signed the relevant convention, but accept that it lays down standards which should be observed on proportionality in warfare and the protection of civilians.)

For all these reasons, we did not headline the allegations from the Rai documentary. The situation changed, however, when last Monday, November 14, the April-May 2005 issue of the US Army journal Field Artillery surfaced on the internet.

It stated that white phosphorus had been used to flush out insurgents from trench networks and spider holes in so called "shake and bake" missions. "We used WP to flush them out and high explosive to take them out," the article said.

Battlefield illumination?

I had two concerns. The first was make sure that the slightly ambiguous phrase "flush out" was not just saying that the insurgents were forced to break cover, having been illuminated in their hiding places with WP. The common sense interpretation is that they were burned out using fire and smoke, but I wanted to nail it down.

The second concern was to authenticate the document. I didn't want to rush onto the air with something found on the internet, which might later turn out to be a fake.

We managed to verify the document by the following morning, at the same time as it appeared in that day's Guardian. We also moved the story on by getting the Pentagon to confirm for the first time that WP had in fact been used as an incendiary, burning out the enemy from their trenches.

The story was given an added push by the fact that the US ambassador in London had a letter in that day's Independent repeating the longstanding, but now discredited, State Department line that white phosphorus was used only for illumination on the battlefield.

Map showing Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Falluja
The Ten O Clock news - our flagship TV news programme, with our biggest audience - led on the story that night, as did other TV and radio bulletins. For those who have written to say we are too partial to the Coalition in our coverage of Iraq, this was a highly embarrassing story for the Americans, given prominence across our output.

Why though didn't we simply say the Americans had been caught out using chemical weapons? It was a devastating charge given that the Coalition went into Iraq looking for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

As BBC programmes have been reporting, white phosphorus is not listed in the treaties and conventions covering chemical weapons. Most defence experts agree that a chemical weapon is one which depends for its lethality on its toxic qualities. WP depends on "thermic effect" - it spontaneously combusts at a few degrees above ambient temperature and burns with an intense heat. It is therefore usually described as an incendiary.

It is a terrifying weapon and for that reason is referred to by Field Artillery as having "potent psychological effects". But it is not a banned weapon - that is one which is illegal under any treaty signed by the United States.

These are, of course, complex issues. In all our reporting, and in our choice of guests on programmes, we gave space to those who argue that - given its terrifying qualities - it is a meaningless technical distinction not to call white phosphorus a chemical weapon.

PR disaster

For the Ten piece, we interviewed a weapons analyst who argued along these lines and showed some of the Rai footage of blackened bodies. The script made the point that to some, these pictures were evidence that large numbers of civilians were killed in Falluja by a chemical agent. The piece ended on the thought that, the US authorities having admitted the use of white phosphorus, the debate would now move to the question of whether civilians were killed and if so, how many.

Subsequent comment in our reports that this was a public relations disaster for the Americans was not to trivialise the very important issue at the heart of this story - the effect on civilian populations of modern warfare, and in particular what happened to civilians in Iraq. We were making the point that Iraq is a battle of ideas and of hearts and minds as well, and the eventual outcome there may well be affected by what we learned over the past few days about white phosphorus.

Finally, there is a longstanding complaint by some of our viewers and listeners that the BBC failed to report at the time of the Falluja operation that a massacre of civilians was going on - and is failing today to report that this did, in fact, take place. We have always at the BBC been very careful in the way in which we address claims of atrocities, massacres and war crimes.

We didn't at the time, last November, report the use of banned weapons or a massacre because we didn't see this taking place - and since then, we haven't seen credible evidence that this is what happened.

We will always look at new evidence and when we learn more about what happened in Falluja, as with white phosphorus, we will always carry those stories.

As a footnote, my colleague Adam Mynott was embedded with the US military during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A missile hit a house which was apparently full of civilians.

Thirteen members of one family were killed. Adam met two of the men from the house in a US military hospital, both horribly burned. One had the skin peeling off his face, the other had 80 per cent burns and subsequently died.

Adam reported this at the time as the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary.

Did BBC ignore weapons claim?
14 Apr 05 |  Notes
Iraq probes US phosphorus weapons
16 Nov 05 |  Middle East
BBC crews embedded in Iraq
19 Nov 04 |  About BBC News
Falluja, not Fallujah
15 Nov 04 |  Corrections


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