Propaganda is not a name we would lightly use to describe a documentary that purports to break news. But the half-hour program on Italian state television (RAI) claiming that U.S. troops in Iraq had used white phosphorus against civilians in the November 2004 battle of Falluja reeks of just that — propaganda. Maybe it’s the long opening that uses archival footage of bombs being dropped on Vietnam, or the iconic image of the naked little girl scorched by napalm in 1972, or perhaps the soundtrack of Arabic wailing that accompanies shots of blackened corpses burnt to the bone — but viewers had reason to be skeptical.


Perhaps for that reason, the program, which aired on November 8, was met with total silence in the American press. No U.S. paper even ran the Reuters story that contained the standard State Department denial. Ever since December 2004, when allegations of white phosphorus use first emerged, the government’s response has been the following: “U.S. forces have used [white phosphorus rounds] very sparingly in Falluja, for illumination purposes. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters.”


But while the American press decided to take a pass on the story, the British press grabbed on to it. The Independent took the lead, running a story on the day of the original broadcast headlined, “US Forces ‘Used Chemical Weapons’ During Assault on City of Falluja,” relying largely on the charges presented in the documentary.


Bloggers also took up the charge, and soon both clarified the initial RAI claims, making them more accurate and less bombastic — and also found much confirmation for the central argument that white phosphorus had been used as a weapon.


It quickly became clear that white phosphorus was not, by almost any definition, a “chemical weapon,” as claimed by the Italian documentary. A “chemical weapon” is one whose objective is to make the air toxic. White phosphorus, when used as a weapon and not just for illuminating the night sky, burns whatever it touches and starts fires. It could more properly be called an incendiary weapon. And though the use of these weapons, like napalm, has been widely condemned, the U.S has never signed the third protocol of the 1983 accord on conventional weapons that makes illegal the use of certain weapons against combatants and civilian populations.


But bloggers also found evidence that strongly threw into question the State Department’s claim that white phosphorus was never targeted at insurgents — a claim that was repeated again and again by government spokesmen in the days after the Italian film, including a vigorous denial by the American ambassador, Robert H. Tuttle, in a letter to the Independent, and military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, who said on the left-wing radio show “Democracy Now” that ”I know of no cases where people were deliberately targeted by the use of white phosphorus.”


In the year between the battle and the Italian claim, there had, in fact, been many indications, from both news reports (we found a few just by searching LexisNexis) and eyewitness accounts, that white phosphorus had been used much more broadly than officially admitted. The most damning evidence came from the March/April issue of the Army’s Field Artillery magazine, an official publication, in which veterans of Falluja described using the weapon, “for screening missions at two breaches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes.” According to these accounts it was most effective in what was called “shake and bake” operations in which insurgents strongholds were fired upon with white phosphorus in order to “flush them out” at which point, out in the open, they were shot at.


On November 16, over a week after the initial Italian allegations, the Pentagon had to backtrack and admit that troops had used the weapon against enemy combatants. Though Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable said that “suggestions that U.S. forces targeted civilians with these weapons are simply wrong,” he had to admit to the Financial Times “it would not be out of the realm of the possible” that civilians were also killed by the white phosphorus.


The Pentagon’s reversal might have been the result of pressure by the international press, the mounting attention by bloggers, or questions from Iraqi and American reporters at briefings in Baghdad — but it was definitely not the result of stories in the U.S. press. There weren’t any.


The first mention of white phosphorus in any American paper came after the November 16 Pentagon admission, and then only in the form of a short Reuters piece in the New York Times and a 222-word article in the Washington Post.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.