As the offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS enters its third week thousands of civilians are fleeing the violence, but new evidence shows they are facing a new threat from deadly white phosphorus munitions being used by the Iraqi and coalition forces.
According to witness and photographic evidence obtained by human rights organisation Amnesty International the deadly incendiary weapon has been fired numerous times over an area east of Mosul called Karemlesh. Civilians are known to pass through this area as they try to reach the city of Erbil.
White phosphorus burns at extremely high temperatures when exposed to air and if it comes into contact with skin it can burn through muscle and bone, unless deprived of oxygen. Despite its chemical properties it is not classified as a chemical weapon.
Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) does not ban its use as a weapon but it does prohibit it from being used against targets close to civilians or civilian property.
Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, has explained the sort of injuries it can cause
“White phosphorus can cause horrific injuries, burning deep into the muscle and bone. It is possible that some of it will only partially burn and could then reignite weeks after being deployed.
This means that civilians who flee the fighting around Mosul or residents returning to check on their homes in Karemlesh in the coming days or weeks would be at risk of serious harm even though there may be few visible warning signs.”
It is not clear how the munitions are being used or which members of the coalition are using them but Amnesty International says that photographs taken by a New York Times photographer indicate a dispersal pattern matching the US-made 155-mm M825A1 projectile.
A public affairs website managed by the Pentagon recently posted images of a US Army artillery unit supporting Iraqi security forces in northern Iraq by using M825A1 rounds.
When the US ratified the CCW agreement it did not sign Protocol III. Instead it said that It
“reserves the right to use incendiary weapons against military objectives located in concentrations of civilians where it is judged that such use would cause fewer casualties and/or less collateral damage than alternative weapons”.
Rovera said it is vital the coalition makes details of areas potentially contaminated by the substance public to minimise the risk of accidental harm to civilians. She added:
“Such information is also crucial for medical professionals operating in Iraq so that they are aware of the kind of injuries they are treating. Tragically we witnessed people dying in Gaza because doctors were not aware that their patients’ burns were caused by white phosphorus and were thus not able to dispense the right treatment, resulting in the wounds deteriorating.”
The use of white phosphorus in Iraq by US forces has been criticised a number of times, particularly during the 2004 battle for Fallujah.
A documentary aired on Italian TV alleged it had been used indiscriminately in the city and had caused numerous civilian deaths and severe chemical burns.
US Department of Defence spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable justified its use to the BBC in 2005, claiming it is an effective psychological tool. According to him
“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.”
Fallujah later became an ISIS stronghold and was reclaimed in June 2016. But the operation to take it back was largely regarded as a humanitarian failure. A UNHCR representative told the Kurdish news network Rudaw that the mistakes would not be repeated in Mosul.
However his comments don’t appear to be consistent with Amnesty’s report on safe corridors for civilians: “Protection of civilians is paramount,” he said to the news outlet, adding “the military is more prepared with a thoughtful plan to make sure civilians who feel that they need to flee can feel comfortable.”