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Recent photographs and videos showing U.S.-led coalition forces using what appears to be white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria began circulating online in early June. The images were initially distributed by Amaq, ISIS’s news agency, as well as the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Following these reports, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement on June 14 expressing concern about the potential impact on civilians in affected areas and more generally condemning the use of white phosphorus munitions. The statement repeated earlier claims that the incendiary chemical has been used in both Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, where coalition forces are currently fighting ISIS.

On June 13, New Zealand Brigadier General Hugh McAslan confirmed the use of white phosphorus by coalition forces in Mosul. U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition, had previously acknowledged the general use of white phosphorus in “accordance with the law of armed conflict.” General McAslan’s statement, though, was the first confirmation that the incendiary substance had been used in Mosul specifically, a densely populated city. Speaking with NPR, the general claimed the phosphorus had only been used “to screen areas within west Mosul to get civilians out safely.”

Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons prohibits using white phosphorous as a weapon in civilian areas. Under humanitarian law, white phosphorus can only be used for the limited purpose of illuminating or obscuring conflict zones. The U.S.-led coalition claims it has only used white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria, in accordance with international law. So far, HRW has been unable to independently verify any of the claims, whether by the coalition or otherwise, about the chemical’s use or the existence of civilian casualties. 

Even if the coalition used the chemical lawfully, the practice remains concerning. As HRW Arms Director Steve Goose argued, “no matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa and Mosul.” Unlike other conventional weapons, white phosphorus bombs have particularly incendiary effects. Fires ignited by white phosphorus are very difficult to put out, and any contact with skin can burn flesh to the bone. After a munition has been set off, fragments of phosphorus can even enter the bloodstream and cause organ failure. In some cases, exposure can be fatalThe chemical can reignite weeks after being deployed, leaving civilians vulnerable to significant physical harm. The effects of white phosphorous can have even longer incubation periods. The U.S. military’s use of white phosphorus during the 2003 Iraq War has since been linked, for example, to illnesses affecting the kidney, lungs, and liver.

Although coalition forces have made strides in pushing back ISIS, the use of white phosphorus will only contribute to a rising civilian death toll in both Raqqa and Mosul.

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