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Iraq probes white phosphorus use

Demonstrators protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Rome following Italian media report on white phosphorus.


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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq has launched an investigation into allegations -- denied by the Pentagon -- that U.S. soldiers aimed artillery rounds of flammable white phosphorus at civilians.

Doctors and teams from Iraq's Health Ministry have been dispatched to Falluja "so we can get a real answer," acting Human Rights Minister Nermin Othman Hassan told a news conference on Thursday.

"In some cases (the injuries) can look like phosphorus, but it can be something else." (Watch how white phosphorus was used in 'shake and bake missions' -- 2:18)

U.S. military officials confirmed Wednesday that its troops used white phosphorus during an offensive to rid Falluja of insurgents last November, but the officials denied an Italian documentary allegation that the weapon was aimed at civilians. (Full story)

The documentary, on Italy's state-run RAI24 television news channel, showed what it claimed were badly burned victims.

A protocol to an accord on conventional weapons that came into force in 1983 forbids the use of incendiary weapons against civilians, Reuters reported.

Pentagon and military officials told CNN that white phosphorus was used in Falluja as a smoke screen to hide advancing U.S. troops as well as to target insurgents in trenches and "spider holes."

In an article in the March-April issue of Field Artillery magazine, soldiers said the white phosphorus was used to flush out insurgents so U.S. forces could target them with high explosives.

Pentagon officials said white phosphorous is a conventional weapon and is used for several purposes -- from creating smoke screens to marking targets -- and that it can be used against enemy combatants.

The Pentagon says the military use of white phosphorus is not illegal and that it is not considered a chemical weapon.

In 2004, the State Department said the United States had not used white phosphorous against enemy forces in the November offensive. Earlier this month, the department said that statement was incorrect.

"There is a great deal of misinformation feeding on itself about U.S. forces allegedly using 'outlawed' weapons in Falluja," the department said.

"The facts are that U.S. forces are not using any illegal weapons in Falluja or anywhere else in Iraq."

The 1993 protocol also bans their use against military targets near concentrations of civilians, except when they are clearly separated from civilians and "all feasible precautions" are taken to avoid civilian casualties, Reuters reported.

However, while the U.S. signed the overall accord, it did not ratify the incendiary-weapons protocol or another involving blinding laser weapons.

The United Nations issued a muted reaction on Thursday. Marie Okabe, deputy spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told a news briefing: "I just have two points on that issue. We are aware of the reported use of white phosphorus in Falluja last year and are concerned about its possible effects on the local civilian population.

"We welcome the decision of the government of Iraq to launch an immediate investigation into this matter."

CNN Pentagon Producer Mike Mount contributed to this report

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