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The US military is using controversial white phosphorous in Iraq — again

US Army soldiers fired artillery in northern Iraq in August. White phosphorus rounds are pictured in the bottom right corner.
Handout photo by 1st Lt. Daniel Johnson, U.S. Army
US Army soldiers fired artillery in northern Iraq in August. White phosphorus rounds are pictured in the bottom right corner.

WASHINGTON — US forces are using white phosphorus munitions in their fight against the Islamic State — based on pictures and videos posted online by the Pentagon — but it is unclear exactly how the controversial armament is being employed.

White phosphorus shells are intended to make smoke screens or signals for advancing troops. When launched against soldiers and civilians, however, the munition can cause severe burn wounds that can be dangerous for medical personnel treating the injured.

International humanitarian law stipulates that white phosphorus munitions should only be used in areas devoid of civilians. Even using it against enemy combatants has raised concerns, given that the munitions can cause horrific injuries.

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Photos posted on a Pentagon-managed public affairs website show a US Army artillery unit in Iraq using white phosphorous munitions, specifically M825A1 155mm rounds. The M825A1 shell can create a smokescreen that lasts about 10 minutes and contains 116 felt wedges impregnated with white phosphorus that jettison and automatically ignite when they come in contact with the air.

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Colonel Joseph Scrocca, the public affairs director for the US-led coalition, said Wednesday that the rounds are used for ‘‘screening and signaling.’’

‘‘Coalition forces use these rounds with caution and always in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict. When M825A1 rounds are employed, they are done so in areas free of civilians and never against enemy forces,’’ Scrocca said in an e-mail.

On Thursday, Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, the spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, revised Scrocca’s statement.

‘‘In the foreground of the photo are 155mm white phosphorous rounds, which are used for screening, obscuring, and marking. When US forces use these munitions, as required by the Law of Armed Conflict, they do so in a way that fully considers possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures,’’ Dorrian said in an email. ‘‘The US military takes all reasonable precautions to minimize the risk of incidental injury to noncombatants and damage to civilian structures.’’

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When asked on the phone whether US forces had used white phosphorus munitions for anything other than screening, obscuring, or marking, Dorrian said the munitions had been ‘‘used generally for the circumstances which I described.’’

He could not say how many times it had been used or whether it had been dropped on enemy combatants or their equipment.

Dorrian also said the image posted online was taken when US forces were supporting a Kurdish peshmerga assault with artillery strikes. The 48-hour operation, called Evergreen II, involved 2,000 Kurdish fighters as they fought to secure the Gwer River bridge in the northern Iraqi town of Gwer. Dorrian said the white phosphorus smoke rounds were used to obscure Kurdish forces moving on enemy positions on the opposite bank of the Great Zab River.

Dorrian was unable to say whether the rounds had been dropped away from the town, on Islamic State positions, and if they had been used in the town, whether civilians were present.

The United States has used white phosphorus in Iraq before, notably in the 2004 battle for Fallujah, when Marine artillery batteries were scrutinized for firing the munitions on entrenched insurgents. In Afghanistan, white phosphorus was used by US troops, primarily in the country’s restive east. In 2009, NATO forces there were accused of burning an 8-year-old girl with the munitions.

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Mark Hiznay, the associate arms director for Human Rights Watch, said he was wary of the US-led coalitions use of white phosphorus munitions and was concerned about its possible use in the upcoming campaign to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.

‘‘When white phosphorus is used in attacks in areas containing concentrations of civilians and civilian objects, it will indiscriminately start fires over a wide area,’’ Hiznay said. ‘‘US and Iraqi forces should refrain from using white phosphorus in urban areas like Mosul because whatever tactical military advantage is gained at the time of use, it will be far outweighed by the stigma created by horrific burns to civilian victims.’’