Leading article: An attempt to excuse the inexcusable

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An accusation of the utmost seriousness has been levelled against the US military. Evidence has emerged that appears to show that the US military used white phosphorous bombs against civilians in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November last year. If this turns out to be true, a war crime has been committed.

The photographic evidence, broadcast last week by the Italian state broadcaster Rai, is horrendous. The station has obtained pictures from Fallujah that show corpses with horrific burns. The victims' flesh has dissolved, but often the clothes are left intact. This is consistent with the use of white phosphorus on humans. The evidence is supported by testimony from a former US soldier who claims to have been warned during the assault on Fallujah that white phosphorous bombs - or "Willy Pete" as it is known in military jargon - was to be used.

The Pentagon and the US State Department do not deny that white phosphorous bombs have been used in Iraq. But they claim that phosphorous was used simply to illuminate enemy positions in Fallujah. This is contradicted by the photographic evidence that shows people burnt to death in their homes. Also contradicted is the US military claim that these bombs did not hit civilians; the photographs plainly show the corpses of women and children. A full, independent inquiry ought to be convened to investigate the matter.

But already apparent are disgraceful attempts by the Bush Administration to close down the story with the State Department arguing that the use of phosphorus is not illegal. It is true that phosphorous bombs are not banned weapons. But the use of incendiary weapons against civilians is clearly prohibited by a 1980 United Nations Convention. If they did deliberately fire phosphorous bombs on targets in Fallujah, US military commanders must have known there was a chance they would hit civilians. Given the Bush Administration's high moral stance over Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons, it is disgraceful that the US military even has weapons such as Mk77 firebombs (a form of updated napalm) and phosphorous at its disposal.

We heard similar weasel arguments from the Bush Administration in defence of the abuse of Iraqi and Afghan detainees. We were told that practices such as "waterboarding" and holding prisoners in "stress positions" did not constitute torture. Most people who saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib thought differently.

Like torture, the firing of chemical weapons at an area where they could hit civilians is immoral. An inquiry must discover the truth of what happened in Fallujah. But that the Bush Administration should even attempt to excuse such a practice is deeply shaming for America.

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