White Phosphorus, Fallujah And Unreported Atrocities

Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, said earlier this year:

“We are committed to evidence-based journalism. We have not been able to establish that the US used banned chemical weapons and committed other atrocities against civilians in Falluja last November. Inquiries on the ground at the time and subsequently indicate that their use is unlikely to have occurred.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, July 13, 2005)

Sadly, their use has occurred, as the Pentagon has now been forced to admit.

Readers may recall from previous media alerts that we did not know then whether unusual or banned weapons – including cluster bombs, depleted uranium, napalm, white phosphorus and poisonous gas – had been used in Fallujah, or whether atrocities had been committed by ‘coalition’ forces against civilians. We did know, however, that the BBC had consistently overlooked credible testimony from multiple sources suggesting such weapons had been used and such acts had taken place.

Last November, Fallujah was placed under “a strict night-time shoot-to-kill curfew” with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot”; male refugees were prevented from leaving the combat zone; a health centre was bombed killing 60 patients and support staff; refugees claimed that “a large number of people, including children, were killed by American snipers” and that the US had used cluster bombs and phosphorus weapons in the offensive.

Recent US military offensives in Ramadi, Baghdadi, Hit, Haditha, Mosul, Qaim, Tal Afar and elsewhere, have likely also killed many civilians and created thousands more refugees. (For sources and further details see:

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of US military reprisal, a high-ranking Red Cross official estimated that “at least 800 civilians” were killed in the first 9 days of the November 2004 assault on Fallujah. (Dahr Jamail, ‘800 Civilians Feared Dead in Fallujah,’ Inter Press Service, November 16, 2004), the news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that the emergency team from Fallujah’s main hospital recovered more than 700 bodies from rubble where houses and shops had stood. Dr Rafa’ah al-Iyssaue, the hospital director, said:

“It was really distressing picking up dead bodies from destroyed homes, especially children. It is the most depressing situation I have ever been in since the war started.”

Dr al-Iyssaue added that more than 550 of the 700 dead were women and children. He said a very small number of men were found in these places and most were elderly. (, ‘Death toll in Fallujah rising, doctors say,’ January 4, 2005;

The Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Fallujah, estimates the total number of people killed in the city during the assault at 4,000 to 6,000, most of them civilians. Mass graves were dug on the outskirts of the city for thousands of the bodies. (Dahr Jamail, ‘Life Goes On in Fallujah’s Rubble,’ Inter Press Service, November 23, 2005)

Embedded BBC Saw Nothing, Heard Nothing, Reported Nothing

In light of the Pentagon’s admission that US forces +did+ use white phosphorus (WP) as an offensive weapon, the BBC needs to explain its earlier silence. The corporation is now trying to absolve itself by claiming that not one single report until now was credible or worth reporting. It has been revealed that UK forces also have WP in their arsenal, and have been trained to use it as a weapon. (Sean Rayment, ‘Tim Collins trained troops to fight with white phosphorus,’ Sunday Telegraph, November 20, 2005)

Unprompted by Media Lens but disturbed by the BBC’s bias in covering the invasion and occupation, members of the public have been contacting the corporation. Several complainants cited our earlier media alerts (e.g. ‘BBC Still Ignoring Evidence of War Crimes’)

Many independent researchers, including the London-based filmmaker and author Gabriele Zamparini (, have also been pursuing developments. As a result, the pressure on mainstream media to report and analyse what is now in the public domain has intensified.

No doubt mindful of this pressure, BBC News led with the WP revelations on its flagship 10 O’Clock News bulletin on November 15, 2005. BBC correspondent Paul Wood, who had been embedded with US forces in Fallujah, asserted that: “this deadly substance [WP] was fired directly at trenches full of insurgents”. This may be correct, but it is also incomplete. As we reported in previous media alerts, there is ample evidence of devastating weaponry, including WP, being deployed in built-up areas (not just “trenches”) where civilians (not just “insurgents”) were sheltering.

Wood told anchor Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight programme that same evening:

“Many in the Arab world, some here [in the UK] who campaigned against the war on Iraq, believe that a massacre of civilians took place inside Fallujah. I didn’t see evidence of that myself. In Fallujah over the summer, I spoke to doctors at the hospital there who discounted these allegations.” (Newsnight, November 15, 2005)

We asked Wood for details of his research in Fallujah. He told us that he “had long conversations” with hospital doctors. By Wood’s own admission only one of these “had been in Falluja right throughout the November campaign”. He added: “Others had arrived later, but I thought it would be good to ask them about the various atrocity allegations anyway, to see how widely they were believed in the town, even if they had no proof.”

According to Wood: “All of them dismissed allegations of chemical weapons use, or of the use of dispersal weapons in general.” (Email forwarded to David Cromwell via Newsnight editor Peter Barron, November 17, 2005)

However, the US has now been forced to admit that it did use white phosphorus as an offensive weapon in Fallujah. We also now know, thanks to the unearthing of a US intelligence document by researchers using the internet, that the US recognises that white phosphorus +is+ a chemical weapon (Peter Popham and Anne Penketh, ‘US intelligence classified white phosphorus as “chemical weapon” ‘, The Independent, November 23, 2005). And, as Dahr Jamail has reported over many months, cluster bombs and depleted uranium were also used in the assault on Fallujah. (

We asked Wood why he had reported not one of the many credible accounts of atrocities in Fallujah, and elsewhere in Iraq – many of which had been presented to the World Tribunal on Iraq held in Istanbul. (See ‘The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing World Tribunal on Iraq‘)

Wood told us that he had spoken to independent reporter Dahr Jamail “to try to chase down his leads.” He added: “Dahr told me they were all too scared to talk (even though they are now in Jordan) or that he otherwise couldn’t track them down. Fair enough — they are his contacts and he might have a number of valid reasons for not handing them on.” (Email forwarded to David Cromwell via Newsnight editor Peter Barron, November 17, 2005)

Dahr Jamail disputes this:

“I am rather surprised that Mr. Wood would allege here that I’ve not provided him contacts he requested. As I told him on the phone when we spoke of this, I gave him all the contacts I had emails/phones for.” Jamail added: “Why does Mr. Wood think I have withheld contact details?” (Email to David Cromwell, November 19, 2005)

Jamail again:

“Perhaps Mr. Wood wouldn’t find it necessary to question another journalist’s sources (mine were first-hand interviews), and would be able to obtain some of these reports himself, if he were not embedded with the military forces which destroyed the city of Fallujah.” (Email to David Cromwell, November 20, 2005)

Wood stated on Newsnight that he had only seen WP used for illumination purposes. He did note, however, that the US admission of WP use “does to some appear to be confirmation of the much wider allegations that civilians were killed in large numbers inside Fallujah.”

And so, once again, the BBC dismisses as mere “allegations” the copious evidence of atrocities provided by humanitarian workers, doctors, refugees and other credible sources.

A new BBC online piece written by Wood excuses himself and the BBC with a few carefully chosen words:

“We didn’t at the time, last November, report the use of banned weapons or a massacre because we didn’t see this taking place – and since then, we haven’t seen credible evidence that this is was [sic] what happened.” (Wood, ‘Heated debate over white phosphorus,’ November 17, 2005;

As we have noted in previous alerts, ‘credible evidence‘ comes from ‘credible sources.’ For mainstream media, this generally means officialdom – including political and military leaders responsible for the use and abuse of chemical weapons, cluster bombs and napalm.

Wood had earlier dismissed reports of such usage because no “reference [was] made to them at the confidential pre-assault military briefings he attended” and because he had not himself witnessed their use. (‘Did BBC ignore weapons claim?’, April 14, 2005;

This was a remarkable judgement by the BBC and an indictment of the ‘embed’ system of reporting. When we pressed Helen Boaden further, citing more reports of atrocities committed against civilians, she abruptly ended the correspondence:

“I do not believe that further dialogue on this matter will serve a useful purpose.” (Email to David Cromwell, March 21, 2005)

Propagandists For Killing Power

Dirk Adriaensens, executive committee member of the Brussels Tribunal, told us:

“It is not that difficult to find witnesses for what happened to Fallujah. There is ample evidence of the atrocities that took place there. Moreover, it is notable that no embedded ‘journalist’ reported atrocities committed in hospitals in recent attacks on Haditha, Al Qaim, Tal Afar, etc.” (Email to David Cromwell, November 21, 2005)

One UN report cited by Adriaensens observes that:

“Ongoing military operations, especially in western and northern parts of the country, continue to generate displacement and hardship for thousands of families and to have a devastating effect on the civilian population… The United Nations has been unable to obtain accurate figures concerning civilian losses following such operations but reports received from civil society organizations, medical sources and other monitors indicate that they are significant and include women and children.” (UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, Human Rights Report, 1 August – 31 October, 2005;
/HR Report.Oct.Eng final.doc

As Adriaensens notes, “the UN report is consistent with eyewitness accounts received from sources inside Iraq.” (, Warning: disturbing images)

Other evidence ignored by the BBC includes the work of Mark Manning, an American documentary filmmaker. Manning recorded 25 hours of videotaped interviews with dozens of Iraqi eyewitnesses – men, women and children who had experienced the assault on Fallujah first-hand.

Manning “was told grisly accounts of Iraqi mothers killed in front of their sons, brothers in front of sisters, all at the hands of American soldiers. He also heard allegations of wholesale rape of civilians, by both American and Iraqi troops”. Moreover: “he heard numerous reports of the second siege of Falluja [November 2004] that described American forces deploying – in violation of international treaties – napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and ‘bunker-busting’ shells laced with depleted uranium”. (Nick Welsh, ‘Diving into Fallujah,’ Santa Barbara Independent, March 17, 2005;

How much effort have Paul Wood and the BBC made to obtain such evidence? Why have they ignored the work of the World Tribunal on Iraq, the Brussels Tribunal, Iraqi human rights groups and the suffering reported by local doctors, health workers and refugees?

The BBC has relied heavily on embedded reporters, and has broadcast relentless propaganda from those wielding devastating firepower in the assault on Iraq. But precious little has been heard from the ‘unpeople’ – including women, children and the elderly – who have been on the receiving end of such killing power.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. We strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone when writing emails to journalists.

Please write to:

Helen Boaden, director of BBC news
Email: [email protected]

Peter Horrocks, head of BBC television news
Email: [email protected]

Paul Wood, BBC world affairs correspondent
Email: [email protected]

Kevin Bakhurst, editor of the BBC 10 O’Clock News
Email: [email protected]

Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight
Email: [email protected]