A New Zealand army general on Wednesday confirmed that coalition forces fighting ISIS have used the controversial chemical white phosphorus in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The revelation comes after the Human Rights Watch issued a news release this week criticizing the U.S.-led coalition for deploying the incendiary in populated areas of Syria and Iraq.*
“White phosphorus fragments can exacerbate wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream and cause multiple organ failure. Already dressed wounds can reignite when dressings are removed and they are re-exposed to oxygen,” the release states.
HRW’s arms director Steve Goose said Wednesday, “Horrific civilian harm from previous use of white phosphorus has generated public outrage and this latest use of white phosphorus underscores the urgent need for states to strengthen international law relating to incendiary weapons.” In spite of these allegations, HRW was not able to independently verify that the use of the incendiary chemical has resulted in any civilian casualties on the ground in Syria or Iraq.
The chemical is not banned under international law, and its permitted use in war is tied to conditions that limits its risks to harm civilians. It is worth noting that Mosul is a relatively densely populated area, making it an area where casualties from chemical burns could be catastrophic.
Shortly after HRW’s statements, New Zealand Brig. Gen. Hugh McAslan told NPR on Wednesday that the chemical was used to create a smokescreen that helped civilians safely evacuate volatile areas in Mosul earlier this year. This is the first time that any member of the coalition acknowledged the use of white phosphorus in Iraq or Syria. McAslan estimated that 28,000 civilians have managed to make the dangerous crossing out of Islamic State territory in the past few days alone.
Online videos surfaced on Thursday showing bursts of white phosphorous munitions at night over the Syrian city of Raqqa, where coalition forces are fighting ISIS militants. The source of the footage is a group called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently; the content of the footage has not yet been independently verified. Amnesty International says that while it is not able to vouch for the video’s credibility, the use of white phosphorous in Raqqa could potentially be a war crime.
U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the coalition in Iraq and Syria, told international media that, “in accordance with the law of armed conflict, white phosphorus rounds are used for screening, obscuring and marking in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures.”
In a 2005 interview, a spokesperson for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Peter Kaiser, explained its legitimate use:
White phosphorus is normally used to produce smoke, to camouflage movement. If that is the purpose for which the white phosphorus is used, then that is considered under the convention legitimate use. If on the other hand the toxic properties of white phosphorus are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.
The U.S., however, used the chemical as a weapon instead of being a purely camouflaging technique in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004. U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable acknowledged as much in a November 2005 story at the BBC:
When you have enemy forces that are in covered positions that your high explosive artillery rounds are not having an impact on and you wish to get them out of those positions, one technique is to fire a white phosphorus round into the position because the combined effects of the fire and smoke—and in some case the terror brought about by the explosion on the ground—will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives.
The war between U.S.-backed forces and the Bashar al-Assad regime has intensified in recent months as both sides battle for strongholds. The U.N. Human Rights Council this week cited staggering loss of civilian life due to coalition airstrikes that have forced 160,000 civilians to flee their homes.
Correction, June 16, 2017: Due to an editing error, this article originally referred to white phosphorus as a gas. It creates gaseous effects but is more accurately described as an incendiary chemical.