A former Army soldier living in Colorado Springs describes the assault on Fallujah a year ago as a "massive killing" in which civilians, including women and children, allegedly died in horrific fashion after a substance melted their skin but left much of their clothing intact.
Jeff Englehart, 25, is at the center of an international firestorm over allegations that U.S. soldiers shot highly combustible material called white phosphorus at Iraqis in the city just northwest of Baghdad.
"It burns you to the bone," he says. "The problem with this stuff is that it kills indiscriminately."
The Italian-run RAI News 24 raised the charge last week in a internationally aired documentary featuring Englehart and others describing how the U.S. allegedly had used white phosphorus and other weapons against civilians in Iraq.
His allegations and other evidence, including photographs by a Fallujah-based human rights organization, have sparked headlines across Europe and the Middle East, but so far have received scant attention from U.S. news organizations.
The Pentagon admits troops fired the substance in Fallujah at the time of the attack, but maintains it was to create a thick smoke blanket that would conceal troop movements. It also was used as a psychological weapon to flush out entrenched combatants, who then were killed with gunfire and explosive rounds, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, tells the Independent.
White phosphorus may be shot from aircraft, artillery, mortars and grenades. Many of the United States' allies signed a 1980 convention agreeing not to use it because of its horrific force. However, the United States has not signed the protocol.
Venable denies the documentary's findings: "To suggest that U.S. forces targeted civilians with this weapon is wrong."
Further, the attack on Fallujah was "well telegraphed," and civilians knew they should leave before U.S. forces arrived, he says.
Photographs collected by a human rights watchdog group -- the Studies Center of Human Rights and Democracy in Fallujah -- indicate civilians stayed and were killed, some apparently by white phosphorus or a substance with similar effects.
Several close-up, color photographs, which are featured in the documentary and have appeared on numerous web sites, show the charred bodies of Fallujah residents, some of them women and children. In some cases, the skin is dissolved to the bone. In others, flesh hangs loosely from bodies, but clothing is mostly unmarked.
Numerous radio requests
As part of a security detachment, Englehart watched two days of the massive, Marine-commanded assault in November 2004 from a command center 500 yards from the action. He says he heard numerous radio requests for white phosphorus to be fired at areas inside Fallujah, and he saw at least one body on which the skin was burnt away.
Englehart was discharged in August after four years of service. Now in Colorado Springs, he is working as a pizza delivery driver and trying to forge a veterans' peace movement.
"[Colorado Springs] seems like the perfect place to start a progressive peace movement," he says.
Another former U.S. soldier featured in the Italian documentary is Garett Reppenhagen, 30, who grew up in Manitou Springs and now is part of a Washington, D.C. nonprofit group that facilitates debate about security issues. Reppenhagen says that during a recent tour of Iraq, he was issued white phosphorus grenades, but not told whether or not to throw them at human targets.
"You can use them as an actual weapon. We were never told not to," he said.
A legal firebomb'
The Pentagon has been dogged by charges that troops have used such weapons indiscriminately, or used illegal weapons, since the initial assault on Iraq more than two years ago.
"This has been a pretty persistent story since March of 2003, and it has taken many life forms, and this is just the latest twist," says Venable.
Venable also seeks to quash theories that the United States used MK-77 while in Fallujah. That weapon, which has effects similar to white phosphorus, is described by Venable as a legal "firebomb" and by critics as a revamped version of napalm, the controversial Vietnam-era weapon.
Troops did, however, use MK-77 in 2003 at Safwan Hill, close to the Kuwaiti border, Venable says.
The accusations over white phosphorus have reverberated to the offices of top officials at the United Nations, a U.N. official in New York says. The United Nations is not actively investigating the matter, says the official, who asked to remain anonymous. A "credible" allegation would need to be lodged by a member state before any action could be taken, the official says.
Philip Coyle, assistant secretary of defense from 1994-2001 in the Clinton administration, and now a senior adviser with the Center for Defense Information, says it would be a "good idea" for, and in the "best interest" of, the government to inquire into the allegations. Charges like these and others, such as those that the CIA maintains jails outside the country, are "hurting our image around the world," he says.
The use of weapons like white phosphorus is problematic because it is extremely difficult to determine combatants from civilians, he adds.
"The problem in Iraq, and the problem all along has been, how do you tell?" he says.