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US use of phosphorus endangers civilians in Iraq, Syria: HRW

The still shows suspected white phosphorus munitions raining down on Raqqah, Syria, in June 2017.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that the use of white phosphorus by a US-led coalition purportedly fighting Daesh endangers the lives of civilians in Syria and Iraq regardless of the weapons’ means of delivery.

“No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like [Syria’s] Raqqah and [Iraq’s] Mosul and any other areas with concentrations of civilians,” Steve Goose, the arms director at the HRW, said on Wednesday.

He further called on the US-led coalition to “take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm when using white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria.”

Almost a week ago, videos were posted online, appearing to show US-led coalition bombers using white phosphorus-loaded munitions in densely-populated areas in Syria and Iraq.

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The HRW said it was not able to independently verify whether the use of the munitions had resulted in any civilian casualties, but locals confirmed deaths.

White phosphorus is an incendiary and toxic chemical substance. The munitions filled with the substance create a thick white cloud when they explode. Upon contact with flesh, the substance can maim and kill by burning to the bone.

Such munitions can be used as an incendiary weapon or a smoke screen for signaling and marking.

In both Raqqah and Mosul, the HRW said, the US-led coalition was using M825 series 155-milimeter artillery projectiles containing 116 felt wedges impregnated with white phosphorus, which ignites when exposed to the air.

The US-led coalition insists that, as a matter of policy, it cannot publicly discuss the use of specific munitions, but admits to using white phosphorus in its operations.

US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, claimed that the US military employed the munitions in “accordance with the law of armed conflict” and that white phosphorus rounds were “used for screening, obscuring, and marking in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures.”

US army soldiers execute a fire mission in northern Iraq on August 2016. White phosphorus smoke rounds are seen in the picture.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post published photographs of a US Marine unit deployed to Syria equipped with white phosphorus projectiles, as well as pictures showing white phosphorus projectiles with US army units near Mosul.

“Horrific civilian harm from previous use of white phosphorus has generated public outrage and this latest use of white phosphorus underscores the urgent need for states to strengthen international law relating to incendiary weapons,” Goose, the HRW official, said.

The US and its allies have been bombarding what they say are Daesh positions inside Syria and Iraq since 2014. The coalition has repeatedly been accused of targeting and killing civilians. It has also been largely incapable of fulfilling its declared aim of eliminating Daesh.

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