BAGHDAD — Omar Ibrahim Abdullah went for a walk to get away from the heavy fighting in Fallouja a little over a year ago and, by his account, came across such a grotesque sight that he's been unable to banish it from his memory.
The United States had mounted a full-scale offensive to pacify the rebel-controlled Iraqi city, and Abdullah said he was eager to escape the Askari district, where he lived. He walked south toward the Euphrates River and stumbled on dozens of burned bodies that he said were colored black and red.
"They must have been affected by chemicals," he said, "because I had never seen anything like that before."
The corpses, he said, had suffered burns from the U.S. military's use of an incendiary chemical known as white phosphorus.
The Pentagon and other U.S. officials at first denied, and later admitted, that troops had used white phosphorus as a weapon against insurgents in Fallouja during that fiercely fought campaign. Its use became public because of questions raised by an Italian television documentary Nov. 8, which alleged that civilians had been targeted "indiscriminately" and that hundreds had died.
But even though U.S. officials have admitted using the substance against enemy fighters, they have denied the allegations of Fallouja residents such as Abdullah that its use was widespread and civilians were among those killed.
"We don't use munitions of any kind against innocent civilians," Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said during a news conference. "In accordance with all established conventions, [white phosphorus] can be used against enemy combatants."
Nicknamed "Willie Pete" by troops, white phosphorus is a dangerous chemical that combusts on contact with oxygen. The military employs it mainly to illuminate battlefields and provide smoke screens. But its use is highly controversial because the only way it can be extinguished is by shutting off its air supply. When it comes in contact with humans, the chemical will burn through to the bone.
Incendiaries are considered particularly inhumane weapons under international treaty, and a 1980 United Nations convention limits their use. The U.S. has not signed the part of the convention that deals with incendiary weapons. Nevertheless, it largely has avoided using incendiary weapons since the Vietnam War and destroyed the last of its napalm arsenal four years ago.
In the 1990s, in fact, the U.S. condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for allegedly using "white phosphorus chemical weapons" against Kurdish rebels and residents of Irbil and Dohuk.
In regard to a war the U.S. said it fought partly because of fears that Hussein would employ chemical or other nonconventional weapons, some critics say the use of white phosphorus is contrary to the spirit of American aims.
"An incendiary weapon cannot be thought of just like any conventional weapon," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. in Washington. "There are rules that apply, and we have to make sure that they are being followed for various reasons."
He went on to explain that for the last century and a half, the U.S. has led international efforts to establish humane conduct standards in war, in part because American troops or civilians could be harmed.
"There is an important principle at stake here. The United States should be very interested in making sure that we are following the rules and other people understand we are following the rules," Kimball said.
But Pentagon officials say the use of white phosphorus, even as an incendiary weapon, is not proscribed by any treaty as long as it is directed solely against military targets.
The question is whether its use in November 2004 against insurgents fighting in a city that most, but not all, civilian inhabitants had fled violates the Inhumane Weapons Convention, to which the United States is a party.
Another issue is whether the United States is obliged to follow the convention's rules on incendiary weapons, given that the U.S. Senate has not ratified that protocol.
The rule bans the use of incendiary weapons against civilian targets or military targets not clearly separated from "concentrations" of civilians.
On the streets of Fallouja, the common allegation is that the U.S. used incendiary bombs against civilians. Iraqi doctors and the local human rights organization have pointed to scores of burned corpses as evidence.
But there's been no independent verification. U.S. officials have accused doctors in Fallouja of lying about such issues because, the officials say, the physicians are loyal to or intimidated by insurgents. The blackened corpses seen in the Italian documentary, for instance, may have been burned by conventional explosives or resulted from decomposition, some viewers have argued.
Abdul Qadir Sadi, an Iraqi from Fallouja in his 30s, said doctors had told him that two of his family members were killed by white phosphorus.