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White phosphorus use in Iraq


White phosphorus use in Iraq

U.S. Air Force Douglas A-1E Skyraider drops a white phosphorus bomb on a Viet Cong position in South Vietnam in 1966.

White phosphorus is a material made from a common [1] Other common names include WP, and the slang term "Willie Pete," which is dated from its use in Vietnam, and is still sometimes used in military jargon.[2] As an incendiary weapon, white phosphorus burns fiercely and can ignite cloth, fuel, ammunition and other combustibles.

In addition to its offensive capabilities, white phosphorus is also a highly efficient smoke-producing agent, burning quickly and producing an instant blanket of smoke. As a result, smoke-producing white phosphorus munitions are very common, particularly as smoke grenades for infantry, loaded in grenade launchers on tanks and other armored vehicles, or as part of the ammunition allotment for artillery or mortars. These create smoke screens to mask movement, position, infrared signatures, or the origin of fire from the enemy.


  • History 1
  • Legality 2
  • World War I, the inter-war period and World War II 3
  • Later uses 4
    • Use in Iraq (1988) 4.1
    • Use in Iraq (2004) 4.2
    • Israel–Lebanon conflict (2006) 4.3
    • Ukraine white phosphorus train disaster 4.4
    • Gaza War (2008–2009) 4.5
    • Afghanistan (2009) 4.6
    • Use in Yemen (2009) 4.7
    • Use in Libya (2011) 4.8
    • Allegations of use in Ukraine (2014) 4.9
  • Smoke-screening properties 5
  • Effects on people 6
    • Burning 6.1
    • Smoke inhalation 6.2
    • Oral ingestion 6.3
    • Fume inhalation 6.4
  • Arms control status and military regulations 7
    • Military regulations 7.1
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


A U.S. airman inspects 2.75-inch white phosphorus marking rockets at Osan Air Base, South Korea in 1996

White phosphorus is believed to have been first used by Fenian arsonists in the 19th century in the form of a solution in carbon disulfide. When the carbon disulfide evaporated, the phosphorus would burst into flames. This mixture was known as "Fenian fire" and allegedly was used by disgruntled itinerant workers in Australia to cause delayed destruction of shabby sleeping quarters.

In 1916, during an intense struggle over conscription for the First World War, twelve members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a workers union opposed to conscription, were arrested and convicted for using or plotting to use incendiary materials, including phosphorus. It is believed that eight or nine men in this group, known as the Sydney Twelve, had been framed by the police.[3] Most were released in 1920 after an inquiry.


The assumption that white phosphorus is considered a chemical weapon, and thus constitutes a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, is false. During the testimony of Prof. Michael A. Newton at the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict he said "the law is clear that there are some authorized, perfectly valid uses of white phosphorus munitions". Newton mentions legitimate marking of targets and illumination and shielding of movements as common uses. In urban areas, white phosphorus can prevent incendiary leveling of an area by masking movements in order to avoid snipers or explosive devices. However, a legal weapon can be used in an unlawful way. An intentional attack on a playground would be different than an attack on other areas, and thus is ruled by different sets of international law. Protocol I demands proportionality and 'feasible measures' in order to minimize or eliminate damage to civilian lives or property, stating "It [white phosphorus] is not strictly prohibited, but it[s use] has to be done carefully, and tightly controlled and on the basis of a very detailed targeting analysis".[4][5]

Colonel Desmond Travers, a UN investigator, has said that while white phosphorus is not a chemical weapon, it is harmful to the environment and dangerous for both victims and the doctors that treat them.[4]

According to Lt. Col. Raymond Lane, the quality of smoke created by white phosphorus is superior to other smoke producing agents such as Hexachloroethane and Titanium Tetrachloride, and thus difficult to match for blanket coverage.[4]

World War I, the inter-war period and World War II

A WP mortar bomb explosion during maneuvers in France, 15 August 1918.

The British Army introduced the first factory-built WP grenades in late 1916. During World War I, white phosphorus mortar bombs, shells, rockets, and grenades were used extensively by American, Commonwealth, and, to a lesser extent, Japanese forces, in both smoke-generating and antipersonnel roles. The British military also used white phosphorus bombs against Kurdish villagers and Al-Habbaniyah in Al-Anbar province during the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920.

In the interwar years, the U.S. Army trained using white phosphorus, by artillery shell and air bombardment.

In 1940, when the invasion of Britain seemed imminent, the phosphorus firm of Albright and Wilson suggested that the British government use a material similar to Fenian fire in several expedient incendiary weapons. The only one fielded was the Grenade, No. 76 or Special Incendiary Phosphorus grenade, which consisted of a glass bottle filled with a mixture similar to Fenian fire, plus some latex (see also Molotov cocktail, Greek fire). It came in two versions, one with a red cap intended to be thrown by hand, and a slightly stronger bottle with a green cap, intended to be launched from the Northover projector (a crude 2.5-inch black-powder grenade launcher). These were improvised anti-tank weapons, hastily fielded in 1940 when the British were awaiting a German invasion after losing the bulk of their modern armaments in the Dunkirk evacuation. Instructions on each crate of SIP grenades included the observations, among other things:

Store bombs (preferably in cases) in cool places, under water if possible.
Stringent precautions must be taken to avoid cracking bombs during handling.
Air burst of a white phosphorus bomb over the USS Alabama during a test exercise conducted by General Billy Mitchell, September 1921

These weapons were generally regarded as presenting a danger to their own operators and were never deployed in combat.

At the start of the Normandy campaign, 20% of American 81 mm mortar rounds were white phosphorus. At least five American Medal of Honor citations mention their recipients using white phosphorus grenades to clear enemy positions, and in the 1944 liberation of Cherbourg alone, a single U.S. mortar battalion, the 87th, fired 11,899 white phosphorus rounds into the city. The U.S. Army and Marines used white phosphorus shells in 107-mm (4.2 inch) mortars. White phosphorus was widely credited by Allied soldiers for breaking up German infantry attacks and creating havoc among enemy troop concentrations during the latter part of the war.

When two American bombers raided Negros Island in the Philippines in 1945, there was a Japanese artillery use of phosphorus bombs during the air raid.[6]

Incendiary bombs were used extensively by both the Axis and Allied air forces against civilian populations and targets of military significance in civilian areas, including Chongqing, London, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo. Late in the war, some of these bombs used white phosphorus (about 1–200 grams) in place of magnesium as the igniter for their flammable mixtures. The use of incendiary weapons against civilians was banned by signatory countries in the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Protocol III. The United States signed Protocols I and II on 24 March 1995 under the Clinton Administration (and the amended article II on 24 May 1999) and later Protocols III, IV, and V, on 21 January 2009 under the Obama Administration.

Later uses

A USAF Security Police Squadron member packs an 81 mm white phosphorus smoke-screen mortar round during weapons training, 1980

White phosphorus munitions were used extensively in December 1994 battle for Grozny in Chechnya, every fourth or fifth Russian artillery or mortar round fired was a smoke or white phosphorus round. [11]

Use in Iraq (1988)

White phosphorus was used by Saddam Hussein during the Halabja poison gas attack. According to an undated ANSA article quoted by an RAI documentary, on the morning of March 16, 1988, the Iraqi Air Force bombed Halabja several times with a chemical cocktail of yperite, tabun, VX, napalm and white phosphorus." White phosphorus had not been previously mentioned in other reports on Halabja, but the use of napalm was commonly reported.[12]

Use in Iraq (2004)

In April 2004, during the First Battle of Fallujah, Darrin Mortenson of California's North County Times reported that white phosphorus was used as an incendiary weapon. Embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Mortenson described a Marine mortar team using a mixture of white phosphorus and high explosives to shell a cluster of buildings where insurgents had been spotted throughout the week.[13]

In November 2004, during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Washington Post reporters embedded with Task Force 2-2, Regimental Combat Team 7, wrote on November 9, 2004 that "Some artillery guns fired white phosphorus (WP) rounds that create a screen of fire that cannot be extinguished with water." [14] Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorus burns.[14]

On November 9, 2005 the Italian state-run broadcaster [90] At the same time, other field manuals discuss the use of white phosphorus against personnel.[91]

Though white phosphorus is still used in modern armed conflict, its use in incendiary weapons is regulated by international humanitarian law, or the law of war.[92]

See also


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  3. ^ Ian Turner (1969). Sydney's Burning – The real conspiracy. Sydney: Alpha Books. Retrieved 24 June 2007. 
  4. ^ a b c "United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict Public hearings – Geneva, Afternoon Session of 7 July 2009" (DOC). Retrieved 2015-05-20. 
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  6. ^
  7. ^ The Tunnels of Cu Chi; 2005 Tom Mangold and John Penycate
  8. ^ Tunnel Rat in Vietnam; 2012 Gordon L Rothman
  9. ^ 'When the fighting is over; A personal story of the Battle for Tumbledown Mountain and its' aftermath' by John and Robert Lawerance 1988
  10. ^ 'No Picnic; 3 Commando Briagde in the South Atlantic by Julian Thompson 1985
  11. ^ Joint Staff (1991). "White Phosphorus (WP)". 
  12. ^ MK-77
  13. ^ Mortenson, Darrin. Violence subsides for Marines in Fallujah, North County Times, April 10, 2004
  14. ^ a b Spinner, Jackie; Vick, Karl; Fekeiki, Omar (November 10, 2004). "U.S. Forces Battle Into Heart of Fallujah". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 4, 2005. 
  15. ^ a b c Reynolds, Paul (16 November 2005). "OPCW Spokesman Peter Kaiser elucidates the OPCW position on white phosphorus". BBC News. Retrieved 19 May 2011. 
  16. ^ OPCW agrees with US Military that use of white phosphorus as incendiary agent is not prohibited
  17. ^ "INCHIESTA - IRAQ, THE HIDDEN MASSACRE - RAINEWS24". Retrieved December 4, 2005. 
  18. ^ "Independent Online Edition". The Independent (London). November 16, 2005. Retrieved December 4, 2005. 
  19. ^ "U.S. official admits phosphorus used as weapon in Iraq". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 16 November 2005. Retrieved 19 May 2011. 
  20. ^ "White Phosphorus In Iraq". 
  21. ^ "BBC NEWS: US general defends phosphorus use". BBC News. 30 November 2005. Retrieved 13 December 2005. 
  22. ^ "Israel admits phosphorus bombing". BBC. 22 October 2006. Retrieved 24 October 2006. 
  23. ^ "Israel admits using phosphorus bombs during war Lebanon".  
  24. ^ Jansen, Jaime (17 July 2006). "Lebanon claims Israel using banned weapons against civilians". Paper Chase Newsburst, Jurist Legal News & Research (University of Pittsburgh School of Law). 
  25. ^ "69 treated for exposure to toxic smoke in Ukraine derailment – Houston Chronicle". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  26. ^ "Train Carrying Toxic Cargo Derails In Ukraine". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  27. ^ "The Sky Is Burning Over Ukraine". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  28. ^ a b "Over 160 in hospital after phosphorus spill in west Ukraine | World | RIA Novosti". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  29. ^ "Fears grow of fallout from Ukraine toxic spill". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  30. ^ "Poison threat from Ukraine train". BBC News. 18 July 2007. 
  31. ^ "About 16,000 people examined in Ukraine after toxic train derailment – English". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  32. ^ "НАТО следит за "фосфорной аварией" в Украине – Власть – Новости. Новости дня на сайте Подробности.". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  33. ^ Frenkel, Sheera (23 April 2009). "Israel backs down over white phosphorus". The Times (London). 
  34. ^ "UN accuses Israel over phosphorus". BBC News. 15 January 2009. Retrieved 16 January 2009. 
  35. ^ Marquand, Robert; Blanford, Nicholas (24 January 1009). "Gaza: Israel under fire for alleged white phosphorus use".  
  36. ^ "Israel: Stop Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza".  
  37. ^ a b Yagna, Yanir (14 January 2009). "For the first time, Gaza militants fire phosphorus shell at Israel".  
  38. ^ Miller, Jonathan (19 January 2009). "Gaza Cease-fire Emerged Amid Mix of Political, Internal Pressures".  
  39. ^ a b "Red Cross: Israel's use of white phosphorus not illegal". JPost. 13 January 2009. Retrieved 14 January 2009. 
  40. ^ a b "Phosphorus weapons – the ICRC's view". International Committee of the Red Cross. 17 January 2009. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  41. ^ Bronner, Ethan (21 January 2009). "Outcry Erupts Over Reports That Israel Used Phosphorus Arms on Gazans". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  42. ^ Illegal bombs' outrage"'". The Independent (London). 16 January 2009. 
  43. ^ "New Israel phosphorus accusation". BBC News. 20 January 2009. 
  44. ^ "Israel-Hamas arms embargo urged". BBC News. 23 February 2009. 
  45. ^ a b Hider, James; Frenkel, Sheera (24 January 2009). "Israel admits using white phosphorus in attacks on Gaza". The Times. Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  46. ^ "Israel reprimands officers over UN compound shelling". BBC. 1 February 2010. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  47. ^ Roth, Kenneth (22 January 2009). "The Incendiary IDF".  
  48. ^ "Israel denies banned weapons use". BBC. 11 January 2009. 
  49. ^ John Pike. "Protocol III – Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  50. ^ Press, Associated. "'IDF white phosphorus use not illegal'". Retrieved 24 March 2010. 
  51. ^ Curiel, Ilana (14 January 2009). "Phosphorus mortar shell detected in Negev".  
  52. ^ Press, Associated (14 January 2009). "'Proposal emerges for 10-day Gaza truce as Palestinian death toll tops 1,000'". Retrieved 24 July 2010. 
  53. ^ a b "Rain of Fire". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 24 July 2010. 
  54. ^ Frenkel, Sheera; Naughton, Philippe (15 January 2009). "UN headquarters in Gaza hit by Israeli 'white phosphorus' shells". Times Online. Archived from the original on 10 October 2011. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  55. ^ "UN: Israelis hit our headquarters in Gaza with 'white phosphorus' shells". Belfast Telegraph. 15 January 2009. 
  56. ^ Katz, Yaakov."Shelled UN building used by Hamas" say Israeli defense officials, Jerusalem Post and Associated Press, 15 January 2009
  57. ^ Harel, Amos (21 January 2009). "IDF probes improper use of phosphorus shells in Gaza Strip".  
  58. ^ "New Israel phosphorus accusation". BBC News. 20 January 2009. 
  59. ^ Beaumont, Peter (21 January 2009). "Israel admits troops may have used phosphorus shells in Gaza".  
  60. ^ a b "Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza" (PDF) (Press release).  
  62. ^ "United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza conflict". UN Human Rights Council. Archived from the original on 7 June 2009. Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  63. ^ Goldstone, Richard (25 September 2009). Report of the United Nations Fact-F inding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (Goldstone report) (PDF) (Report). UN Human Rights Council. para. 49. 
  64. ^ Frenkel, Sheera (2 February 2010). "Israeli officers get slap on wrist for white phosphorus use in Gaza". The Times (London). 
  65. ^ ישי גולדפלם (3 February 2010). על מה ננזפו הקצינים הבכירים? [What senior officers were reprimanded?]. (in Hebrew).  Includes the bibliography of Pfeffer's citations, the IDF's responses, his final removal of phosphor mention, but the continued use of the mistaken information in various local and international media.
  66. ^ Straziuso, Jason (11 May 2009). "U.S.: Afghan Militants Use White Phosphorus".  
  67. ^ "EXCLUSIVE – Afghan girl's burns show horror of chemical strike".  
  68. ^ Chivers, C. J. (19 April 2009). "Pinned Down, a Sprint to Escape Taliban Zone".  
  69. ^ Synovitz, Ron (13 May 2009). "Investigation Launched Into White Phosphorus Claims In Afghanistan".  
  70. ^ Houthis release photos of Saudi phosphorus bombs, PressTV, 17 November 2009.
  71. ^ Saudi jets using phosphorus bombs, claim Yemen rebels, Daily Times, 10 November 2009.
  72. ^ Chivers, C. J. (15 April 2011). "Qaddafi Troops Fire Cluster Bombs Into Civilian Areas". The New York Times. 
  73. ^ ЗАО ИД «Комсомольская правда» (June 12, 2014). "Ополчение Славянска: Украина применила фосфорные боеприпасы". Retrieved 2015-05-20. 
  74. ^ "Украина использует фосфорные бомбы | Новости". July 25, 2014. Retrieved 2015-05-20. 
  75. ^ Denber, Rachel (June 20, 2014). "Dispatches: White Phosphorus, White Lies, or What?". Human Rights Watch. 
  76. ^ Burke, Robert (2013), "Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders, Third Edition", CRC Press: 313 
  77. ^ Khalili, Mustafa; Tait, Michael (19 January 2009). "White phosphorus in Gaza: the victims". The Guardian (London). 
  78. ^ "Chemical burns follwong Israeli bombings | Flickr – Photo Sharing!". Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  79. ^ a b Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). "White Phosphorus: Health Effects". Toxicological Profile Information Sheet (PDF). 
  80. ^ "ATSDR – Minimal Risk Levels for Hazardous Substances (MRLs)". Retrieved 4 December 2005. 
  81. ^ a b Lisandro Irizarry, MD, MPH, FAAEM. "eMedicine – CBRNE – Incendiary Agents, White Phosphorus". Retrieved 4 December 2005. 
  82. ^ The Use of White Phosphorus and the Law of War, I.J MacLeod and A.P.V. Rogers in Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law (2007)
  83. ^ Organisation for the Prohibitions of Chemical Weapons. "Schedules of Chemicals" (– Scholar search). 
  84. ^ Paul Reynolds (16 November 2005). "White phosphorus: weapon on the edge". BBC News. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  85. ^ "Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)". Retrieved 25 September 2007. 
  86. ^ "Protocol III – Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons". Retrieved 4 December 2005. 
  87. ^ "Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – States parties and signatories". The United Nations at Geneva. Retrieved 13 April 2010. 
  88. ^ Buncombe, Andrew; Brown, Colin (17 November 2005). "Incendiary weapons: The big white lie". The Independent (London). Archived from the original on 25 March 2007. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  89. ^ "FM27-10 :: Rule of Land Warfare (". Retrieved 12 December 2005. 
  90. ^ "5sect3". Retrieved 4 December 2005. 
  91. ^ "FM 3-06.11 Appendix F". Retrieved 12 December 2005. 
  92. ^ [2]

External links

  • The Legality of the Use of White Phosphorus by the United States Military During the 2004 Fallujah Assaults (Roman Reyhani)
  • on WP (including use during the Battle of Fallujah and during the December 1994 battle for Grozny during the First Chechen War)
  • Buncombe, Andrew; Brown, Colin (17 November 2005). "Incendiary weapons: The big white lie". The Independent (London). 
  • CDC – NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards


However, the 1999 [89] Within the US Army, there appears to be conflicting advice on the use of white phosphorus against humans. According to the field manual on the Rule of Land Warfare, "The use of weapons which employ fire, such as tracer ammunition, flamethrowers, napalm and other incendiary agents, against targets requiring their use is not violative of international law."

Military regulations

The use of this weapon may technically have been legal, but its effects are such that it will hand a propaganda victory to the insurgency. The denial of use followed by the admission will simply convince the doubters that there was something to hide.[88]

The legal position however, is not the only consideration in any war. For instance, concerning the U.S. use of white phosphorus in Iraq, the British Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell, said

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, not the Chemical Weapons Convention, goes on, in its Protocol III, to prohibit the use of all air-delivered incendiary weapons against civilian populations, or for indiscriminate incendiary attacks against military forces co-located with civilians.[86] However, that protocol also specifically excludes weapons whose incendiary effects are secondary, such as smoke grenades. This has often been read as excluding white phosphorus munitions from this protocol, as well. Several countries, most notably Israel, are not signatories to Protocol III.[87]

The OPCW, using member votes, creates Schedules of chemical weapons or dual-use chemicals of concern and white phosphorus is not in any of these schedules. [85] Kaiser was a staff spokesman for the

[84] No it's not forbidden by the CWC if it is used within the context of a military application which does not require or does not intend to use the toxic properties of white phosphorus. 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. In an 2005 interview with

The convention defines a "toxic chemical" as a chemical "which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals" (CWC, II). An annex lists chemicals that fall under this definition and WP is not listed in the Schedules of chemical weapons or precursors.[83]

However, the use against military targets outside civilian areas is not explicitly banned by any treaty. The convention is meant to prohibit weapons that are "dependent on the use of the toxic properties of chemicals as a method of warfare" (Article II, Definitions, 9, "Purposes not Prohibited" c.).

Weapons containing white phosphorus, but are not incendiary weapons, are not regulated by the above protocol.

(i) Munitions which may have incidental incendiary effects, such as illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems;
(ii) Munitions designed to combine penetration, blast or fragmentation effects with an additional incendiary effect.

Examples are:

There are multiple international laws that could be seen to regulate white phosphorus use.[82] Article 1 of Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons defines an incendiary weapon as "any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target". The same protocol prohibits the use of said incendiary weapons against civilians (already forbidden by the Geneva Conventions) or in civilian areas. The convention also defines weapons which are not to be considered to be incendiary weapons.

Arms control status and military regulations

Long term inhalation of derivative fumes causes a condition called phossy jaw or osteonecrosis of the jaw, which is a painful, debilitating and ultimately lethal condition that afflicted factory workers involved with the manufacture of matches that contained white phosphorus. The mechanism for necrosis is clot formation leading to bone ischaemia or infarction, leading to the putrid rotting of the bone of the lower jaw. For this reason, the Berne Convention (1906) was enacted to forbid the manufacture, sale or purchase of matches containing white phosphorus. This condition may also be caused by high doses of lead, cadmium and bisphosphonate based cancer drugs.

Fume inhalation

The accepted lethal dose when white phosphorus is ingested orally is 1 mg per kg of body weight, although the ingestion of as little as 15 mg has resulted in death.[81] It may also cause liver, heart or kidney damage.[79] There are reports of individuals with a history of oral ingestion who have passed phosphorus-laden stool ("smoking stool syndrome").[81] Its extreme toxicity is due to the generation of free radicals, especially in the liver, where they accumulate and are not easily metabolized.

Oral ingestion

Burning white phosphorus produces a hot, dense, white smoke consisting mostly of phosphorus pentoxide. Exposure to heavy smoke concentrations of any kind for an extended period (particularly if near the source of emission) has the potential to cause illness or death. White phosphorus smoke irritates the eyes, mucous membranes of the nose, and respiratory tract in moderate concentrations, while higher concentrations can produce severe burns. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has set an acute inhalation Minimum Risk Level (MRL) for white phosphorus smoke of 0.02 mg/m3, the same as fuel-oil fumes. By contrast, the chemical weapon mustard gas is 30 times more potent: 0.0007 mg/m3.[80]

Smoke inhalation

These weapons are particularly dangerous to exposed people because white phosphorus continues to burn unless deprived of oxygen or until it is completely consumed. In some cases, burns are limited to areas of exposed skin because the smaller WP particles do not burn completely through personal clothing before being consumed. [79]

Injuries from white phosphorus.[77][78]


White phosphorus can cause injuries and death in three ways: by burning deep into tissue, by being inhaled as a smoke, and by being ingested. Extensive exposure by burning and ingestion is fatal.

NFPA 704
"fire diamond"

Effects on people

Various disadvantages of white phosphorus are discussed below, but one which is particular to smoke-screening is "pillaring". Because the WP smoke is formed from fairly hot combustion, the gasses in the cloud are hot, and tend to rise. Consequently the smoke screen tends to rise off the ground relatively quickly and form aerial "pillars" of smoke which are of little use for screening. Tactically this may be counteracted by using white phosphorus to get a screen quickly, but then following up with emission type screening agents for a more persistent screen. Some countries have begun using red phosphorus instead. Red phosphorus ("RP") burns cooler than WP and eliminates a few other disadvantages as well, but offers exactly the same weight efficiency. Other approaches include white phosphorus-soaked felt pads (which also burn more slowly, and pose a reduced risk of incendiarism) and PWP, or plasticised white phosphorus.

Because of the great weight efficiency of white phosphorus smoke, it is particularly suited for applications where weight is highly restricted, such as hand grenades and mortar bombs. An additional advantage for hand smoke grenades—which are more likely to be used in an emergency—is that the WP smoke clouds form in a fraction of a second. Because WP is also pyrophoric, most munitions of this type have a simple burster charge to split open the casing and spray fragments of WP through the air, where they ignite spontaneously and leave a trail of rapidly thickening smoke behind each particle. The appearance of this cloud forming is easily recognised; one sees a shower of burning particles spraying outward, followed closely by distinctive streamers of white smoke, which rapidly coalesce into a fluffy, very pure white cloud (unless illuminated by a coloured light source).

Since an atom of phosphorus has an atomic mass of 31 but a molecule of phosphoric acid has a molecular mass of 98, the cloud is already 68% by mass derived from the atmosphere (i.e. 3.2 kilograms of smoke for every kilogram of WP); it may absorb more because phosphoric acid and its variants are hygroscopic. Given time, the droplets will continue to absorb more water, growing larger and more dilute until they reach equilibrium with the local water vapour pressure. In practice, the droplets quickly reach a range of sizes suitable for scattering visible light and then start to dissipate from wind or convection.

2 P2O5 + 6 H2O → 4 H3PO4 (also forms polyphosphoric acids such as pyrophosphoric acid, H4P2O7)

Diphosphorus pentoxide is extremely hygroscopic and quickly absorbs even minute traces of moisture to form liquid droplets of phosphoric acid:

P4 + 5 O2 → 2 P2O5

When phosphorus burns in air, it first forms diphosphorus pentoxide (which exists as tetraphosphorus decoxide except at very high temperatures):

Weight-for-weight, phosphorus is the most effective smoke-screening agent known, for two reasons: firstly, it absorbs most of the screening mass from the surrounding atmosphere and secondly, the smoke particles are an aerosol, a mist of liquid droplets which are close to the ideal range of sizes for Mie scattering of visible light. This effect has been likened to three-dimensional textured privacy glass—the smoke cloud does not simply obstruct an image, but thoroughly scrambles both visual and infrared radiation, interfering with infrared optics and weapon-tracking systems, serving as a protection for military forces from guided weapons such as anti-tank missiles.

Smoke-screening properties

There have been multiple claims from Russian media about Ukraine using white phosphorus against rebels and civilians in the War in Donbass.[73][74] According to Human Rights Watch, some of the videos presented as evidence were misrepresented copies of footage from Fallujah in 2004 and others offered did not depict white phosphorus, according to their arms researchers. Human Rights Watch also noted that this was not "the first time that Russian state media has manufactured montages about eastern Ukraine, twisted the truth, or outright misstated facts."[75]

Allegations of use in Ukraine (2014)

During the uprising, shells with white phosphorus and the use of cluster bombs[72] over Misrata by Gaddafi forces were reported.

Use in Libya (2011)

Houthi fighters in Yemen claimed Saudi warplanes dropped phosphorus bombs on villages in north Yemen in November 2009.[70] The Saudi government denied military use of phosphorus munitions against the rebels, saying they were flares, not phosphorus.[71]

Use in Yemen (2009)

There are confirmed cases of white phosphorus burns on bodies of civilians wounded in Afghanistan US-Taliban clashes near Bagram. The United States has accused Taliban militants of using white phosphorus weapons illegally on at least 44 occasions.[66] In May 2009, Colonel Gregory Julian, a spokesman for General David McKiernan, the overall commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, confirmed that Western military forces in Afghanistan use white phosphorus in order to illuminate targets or as an incendiary to destroy bunkers and enemy equipment.[67][68] The Afghan government later launched an investigation into the use of white phosphorus munitions.[69]

Afghanistan (2009)

In 2010, Anchel Pfeffer of Haaretz claimed that the Israeli report to the UN included a section discussing two senior Israeli officers who were responsible for firing white phosphorus artillery shells on a United Nations compound and were reprimanded earlier that year.[64] This was later disproved. The officers were reprimanded for permitting artillery shot in that same combat, and Israel continued to claim that its use of phosphorus in that combat was only for smoke.[65]

Human Rights Watch claimed in its report that instead of white phosphorus, the Israeli military had a non-lethal alternative at its disposal- smoke shells produced by Israel Military Industries.

Head of the UN Fact Finding Mission Justice Richard Goldstone presented the report of the Mission to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 29 September 2009, urging the Council and the international community as a whole to put an end to impunity for violations of international law in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.[62] The Goldstone report accepted that white phosphorus is not illegal under international law but did find that the Israelis were "systematically reckless in determining its use in build-up areas". It also called for serious consideration to be given to the banning of its use as an obscurant.[63]

The Israeli government released a report in July 2009 that confirmed that the IDF used white phosphorus in both exploding munitions and smoke projectiles. The report acknowledged the use of exploding munitions by Israeli ground and naval forces. The report argues that the use of these munitions was limited to unpopulated areas for marking and signaling and not as an anti-personnel weapon.[61] The Israeli government report further stated that smoke screening projectiles were the majority of the munitions containing white phosphorus employed by the IDF and that these were very effective in that role. The report states that at no time did IDF forces have the objective of inflicting any harm on the civilian population.[61]

White phosphorus munitions did not kill the most civilians in Gaza – many more died from missiles, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire – but their use in densely populated neighborhoods, including downtown Gaza City, violated international humanitarian law (the laws of war), which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and prohibits indiscriminate attacks. [60]

On 25 March 2009, United States based human rights organization Human Rights Watch published a 71-page report titled Rain of Fire, Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza and said that Israel's usage of the weapon was illegal.[60]

On 26 January, after weeks of fighting in which Israel either strenuously denied it was using white phosphorus weaponry, or insisted any use was "in line with international law", the nation's Ministry of Defence admitted using white phosphorus in densely populated Gaza.[45][59]

On 20 January, Paul Wood of the BBC reports from Gaza on white phosphorus use in civilian areas. Amnesty team weapon expert Christopher Cobb-Smith, who witnessed the shelling by the IDF during the conflict, reported "we saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still-burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army."[58]

On 17 January, Peter Herby, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross Arms Unit, confirmed the use of white phosphorus weapons by Israel in Gaza, outlined the rules applicable to phosphorus weapons and explained the ICRC's approach to the issue.[40]

On 15 January, the United Nations compound, housing numerous refugees in Gaza City, was struck by Israeli white phosphorus artillery shells, setting fire to pallets of relief materials and igniting several large fuel storage tanks. A UN spokesperson indicated that there were difficulties in attempting to extinguish the fires because of the white phosphorus and stated "You can’t put it [white phosphorus] out with traditional methods such as fire extinguishers. You need sand but we do not have any sand in the compound."[54][55] Senior Israeli defense officials maintain that the shelling using white phosphorus munitions was in response to Israeli military personnel being fired upon by Hamas fighters who were in proximity to the UN headquarters, and was used for smoke.[56] The Israeli army investigated improper use of WP in the conflict, particularly in one incident in which 20 WP shells were fired in a built-up area of Beit Lahiya.[57]

On 14 January, Israeli news sources Haaretz and Ynetnews reported that a mortar shell containing white phosphorus was fired from Gaza and exploded without damage or injury in an open space in the Eshkol area.[37][51] The official foreign press spokesman for the Israeli Police, Micky Rosenfeld, stated that the shell had landed in a field near Sderot.[52][53] A day after the attack, a researcher for Human Rights Watch travelled to Sderot to investigate the claim. One resident said he had heard about a mortar shell, possibly with white phosphorus, landing in a field outside of town but could not specify where. When pressed for information, Rosenfeld could give no further insight, telling Human Rights Watch that "all I have is what's in the press release." Local authorities in Sderot also told the researcher that they were unaware of the attack.[53]

The IDF stated on 13 January that it "wishes to reiterate that it uses weapons in compliance with international law, while strictly observing that they be used in accordance with the type of combat and its characteristics."[50]

Since Protocol III, of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons regulates Incendiary Weapons, and shells containing White Phosphorus, may be legal even in populated areas, more information is required to determine the legality of any shell landing in populated areas.[49]

Many other observers, including Human Rights Watch military experts, reported seeing white phosphorus air bursts over Gaza City and the Jabalya refugee camp.[47] The BBC published a photograph of two shells exploding over a densely populated area on 11 January.[48]

On 5 January the Times reported that telltale smoke associated with white phosphorus had been seen in areas of a shelling. On 12 January it was reported that more than 50 phosphorus burns victims were in Nasser Hospital. On 16 January the UNRWA headquarters was hit with phosphorus munitions.[45] As a result of the hit, the compound was set ablaze.[46]

Amnesty International said a fact-finding team found "indisputable evidence of the widespread use of white phosphorus" in crowded civilian residential areas of Gaza City and elsewhere in the territory.[43] Donatella Rovera, the head of an Amnesty fact-finding mission to southern Israel and Gaza, said: "Israeli forces used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by the United States to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes."[44]


Human Rights Watch said shells exploded over populated civilian areas, including a crowded Palestinian refugee camp[37] and a United Nations school where civilians were seeking refuge.[38] Additionally, Human Rights Watch said that white phosphorus injuries were suspected in the cases of ten burn victims.[39] The International Red Cross stated that phosphorus weapons had been used in the conflict but would not comment publicly on the legality of Israel’s use of the weapon, pending further investigation, contrary to what had been attributed to the ICRC in a number of media reports.[39][40][41]

Al Jazeera video. Burning Israeli white phosphorus clusters in the streets of Gaza. 11 January 2009

Numerous reports from human right groups during the war indicated that white phosphorus shells were being used by Israel in populated areas.[34][35][36]

In its early statements the Israeli military repeatedly denied using white phosphorus, saying "We categorically deny the use of white phosphorus", and "The IDF acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus." It eventually admitted its use and stopped using the shells, however, saying that a "media buzz" led to its decision to do so.[33]

Gaza War (2008–2009)

On 16 July 2007, a train transporting 15 tanks containing white phosphorus derailed in the Lviv oblast. As a result 90[25][26] square kilometers were contaminated with a cloud of white phosphorus. In the first days 152[27][28] people were hospitalized.[29] The disaster was described as an equivalent to the Chernobyl disaster.[28][30] 16,000 people were checked for symptoms of chemical poisoning within a week,[31] and Lviv residents were advised to stay inside and not to use water from wells, nor eat vegetables from their gardens or drink milk from their cows (later this advice was revoked). On 18 July 2007, it was reported that NATO was watching the toxic cloud movement.[32]

Ukraine white phosphorus train disaster

During the 2006 Israel–Lebanon conflict, Israel admitted that it had used phosphorus shells "against military targets in open ground" in south Lebanon. Israel clarified that its use of the white phosphorus bombs was permitted under international conventions.[22] President of Lebanon Émile Lahoud claimed that phosphorus shells were used against civilians in Lebanon.[23] The first Lebanese official complaint about the use of phosphorus came from Information Minister Ghazi Aridi.[24]

Israel–Lebanon conflict (2006)

On November 22, 2005, the Iraqi government stated it would investigate the use of white phosphorus in the battle of Fallujah.[20] On November 30, 2005, General Peter Pace stated that white phosphorus munitions were a "legitimate tool of the military" used to illuminate targets and create smokescreens, saying "It is not a chemical weapon. It is an incendiary. And it is well within the law of war to use those weapons as they're being used, for marking and for screening".[21]

On November 16, 2005, BBC News reported that an article published in the March–April 2005 issue of Field Artillery, a U.S. Army magazine, noted that white phosphorus had been used during the battle. According to the article written by a captain, a first lieutenant, and a sergeant, "WP [White Phosphorus] proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosives]. We fired "shake and bake" missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out."[15] BBC News noted that the article had been discovered by bloggers after the US ambassador in London, Robert Holmes Tuttle, stated that US forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons.[15]

On November 15, 2005, U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable confirmed to the BBC that white phosphorus had been used as an incendiary antipersonnel weapon in Fallujah. Venable stated "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."[18][19]

[17], who had been in Fallujah, as a testimony. Giuliana Sgrena The documentary also included footage which purported to be of white phosphorus being fired from helicopters over Fallujah. It also quoted journalist [16][15]

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