Sigfrido Ranucci, who made the documentary for the RAI television channel aired two weeks ago, said that a US intelligence assessment had characterised WP after the first Gulf War as a “chemical weapon”.

The assessment was published in a declassified report on the American Department of Defence website. The file was headed: “Possible use of phosphorous chemical weapons by Iraq in Kurdish areas along the Iraqi-Turkish-Iranian borders.”

In late February 1991, an intelligence source reported, during the Iraqi crackdown on the Kurdish uprising that followed the coalition victory against Iraq, “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorous chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and the populace in Erbil and Dohuk. The WP chemical was delivered by artillery rounds and helicopter gunships.”

According to the intelligence report, the “reports of possible WP chemical weapon attacks spread quickly among the populace in Erbil and Dohuk. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled from these two areas” across the border into Turkey.

“When Saddam used WP it was a chemical weapon,” said Mr Ranucci, “but when the Americans use it, it’s a conventional weapon. The injuries it inflicts, however, are just as terrible however you describe it.” ~The Independent

Mr. Ranucci’s last point is perhaps the most important. However one wants to classify it (and it does make sense, on thinking about it, to classify phosphorus as a chemical weapon), the important thing to keep in mind is that white phosphorus is an indiscriminate weapon and that it evidently was used against at least one civilian population center. If anything is a war crime, it is the use of such weapons against civilian centers. The jingoes can attempt to justify it however they like. They can invoke mitigating circumstances, the ambiguities of war and try to shift the blame back onto the enemy, but they can really only justify it by turning to the ethical redoubt of every totalitarian and tyrant: the ends justify the means.