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Fire Bombs in Iraq:Napalm By Any Other Name

Iraq Analysis Group, March 2005 | 15.04.2005 08:50 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | Cambridge

This briefing examines the continuing use of incendiary weapons
("napalm") by the US military in Iraq. While the UK government has
attempted to downplay or deny the use of incendiaries in Iraq, US
officials have been forced to admit using the MK-77 incendiary, a modern
form of napalm. The UK is party to an international convention banning
such weapons where they may cause harm to civilians. In Iraq, UK forces
are part of a coalition which does not adhere to internationally agreed
standards of warfare.

1. Napalm past

A fire bomb is a thin-skinned container of fuel gel. It ignites on
impact, spreading the burning gel over a wide area. The composition of
the fuel gel has evolved over the years:

World War II: gasoline plus naphthenic and palmitic acids
Vietnam & Korea: gasoline, benzene and polystyrene
Iraq (MK-77 Mod 5): kerosene-based jet fuel and polystyrene

In the past, incendiaries were used most notoriously in the 1945
fire-bombing of Dresden, and by the US in Vietnam. The 1972 photograph
of the child Kim Phuc running from her napalmed village with her naked
body burning was a defining moment in worldwide opposition to the
Vietnam War.

Napalm has also been used in Iraq in the past. The Ba'ath regime of
Saddam Hussein used it during the 1991 uprising. In 1992 Human Rights
Watch reported:

Refugees alleged that Iraqi helicopters dropped a variety of ordnance on
civilians, including napalm and phosphorus bombs, chemical agents and
sulfuric acid. Representatives of human rights and humanitarian
organizations who saw refugees with burn injuries or photographs of such
injuries were unable to confirm the source of the burns, although
doctors who examined injured Iraqis said that some of the wounds were
consistent with the use of napalm.[1]

2. Napalm present

The US military has in its current arsenal a modern form of napalm.
Known as the MK-77 Mod 5, the bombs are dropped from aircraft and ignite
on impact. They contain a lethal mixture of aircraft fuel and
polystyrene, which forms a sticky, flammable gel. As it burns, the gel
sticks to structures and to the bodies of its victims. The light
aluminium containers lack stabilising fins, making them far from
precision weapons.

The MK-77 is the only incendiary now in use by the US military. It is an
evolution of the napalm bombs M-47 and M-74 that were used in Vietnam
and Korea. In the new weapon, the flammable gel is made up of
kerosene-based jet fuel and polystyrene. The MK-77 bomb reportedly also
contains an oxidizing agent. This makes it even more difficult to put
out once ignited.

While the composition of the weapons has evolved, the targets remain the
same. Incendiaries are typically used against dug-in troops, supply
installations, wooden structures, and land convoys.

Use of incendiaries is restricted by the 1980 UN Convention on 'Weapons
Which May Be Deemed To Be Excessively Injurious Or To Have
Indiscriminate Effects'.[2] The United Kingdom has fully ratified this
convention and must abide by it and its additional protocols. More than
80 other countries have done the same.

"Most of the world understands that napalm and incendiaries are a
horrible, horrible weapon," said Robert Musil, director of the
organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility. "It takes up an awful
lot of medical resources. It creates horrible wounds."[3]

However, although the United States has ratified the convention, it has
not signed up to the protocol on incendiary weapons.

3. Firebombs in Iraq

Incendiary weapons have been issued to US forces in Iraq, apparently
mainly Marine Corps aviation wings. Incendiaries were used against
Iraqi troops during the 2003 invasion, and there is growing evidence
that use continues, including in Fallujah.

For example, two embedded reporters (from the Sydney Morning Herald and
CNN) witnessed a firebomb attack on an Iraqi observation post at Safwan
Hill, overlooking the Kuwaiti border, on 21 March 2003:

Marine Cobra helicopter gunships firing Hellfire missiles swept in low
from the south. Then the marine howitzers, with a range of 30
kilometres, opened a sustained barrage over the next eight hours. They
were supported by US Navy aircraft which dropped 40,000 pounds of
explosives and napalm, a US officer told the Herald.

Safwan Hill went up in a huge fireball and the Iraqi observation post
was obliterated. "I pity anybody who's in there," a marine sergeant
said. "We told them to surrender."[4]

During and immediately after the invasion, US officials denied claims
that napalm weapons were being deployed.[5] However, as military
personnel and journalists in Iraq quickly presented evidence of their
use, by August 2003 Pentagon spokesmen were forced to admit that MK-77
firebombs had been dropped. Past denials were justified on the grounds
that questioners had used the term 'napalm' instead of 'firebombs' or
'MK-77s'. The US claims to have destroyed all its stocks of 'napalm'
and argues that the MK-77 cannot be included in this term. However, the
Pentagon admits that the MK-77 is an incendiary with a function
'remarkably similar' to that of napalm.[6]

In fact, the US military itself refers to the new-generation MK-77 as
'napalm'. The term is even used in official documents such as Defend
America, the monthly US Department of Defense publication describing the
progress of the 'war on terror'. In February 2003 the publication
proudly described preparations for the coming war, detailing the
build-up of weapons in Kuwait:

Everything from hand grenades to 2,000-pound bombs and napalm are
shipped, ready for use whenever 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing needs them.[7]

Military personnel routinely refer to MK-77 incendiaries as 'napalm':

'We napalmed both those [bridge] approaches', said Colonel Alles,
commander of Marine Air Group 11. 'Unfortunately, there were people
there because you could see them in the [cockpit] video. They were
Iraqi soldiers there. It~Rs no great way to die'. He added, 'The
generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect.'[8]

4. Recent use of incendiaries: Firebombing Fallujah

In November 2004 US forces launched a massive attack on the city of
Fallujah. Much of the city was destroyed and tens of thousands of
residents fled as refugees.

Reports have emerged of burnt and melted bodies in the city, consistent
with the use of napalm or the equally controversial weapon white
phosphorus (also known as 'Willy Pete').

Residents who survived the attack reported seeing incendiary bombs used
in the city. Abu Sabah, who lived in the Julan district of Fallujah
which witnessed some of the heaviest attacks, said:

"They used these weird bombs that put up smoke like a mushroom cloud...
then small pieces fall from the air with long tails of smoke behind

He said that pieces of these strange bombs explode into large fires that
burn the skin even when water is thrown on the burns.[9]

"Usually we keep the gloves on," said Army Capt. Erik Krivda, of
Gaithersburg, Md., the senior officer in charge of the 1st Infantry
Division's Task Force 2-2 tactical operations command center. "For this
operation, we took the gloves off."

Some artillery guns fired white phosphorous rounds that create a screen
of fire that cannot be extinguished with water. Insurgents reported
being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction
consistent with white phosphorous burns.

Kamal Hadeethi, a physician at a regional hospital, said, "The corpses
of the mujahedeen which we received were burned, and some corpses were

5. International Law and UK Denials

Protocol III of the 1980 UN convention on 'Weapons Which May Be Deemed
To Be Excessively Injurious Or To Have Indiscriminate Effects' states

It is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective
located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by
air-delivered incendiary weapons.

'A concentration of civilians' is defined as including 'inhabited parts
of cities', such as Fallujah. The United Kingdom has signed up to this

On 6 December 2004 Alice Mahon MP received an answer to a Parliamentary
Question to Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram on Coalition use of
napalm-type weapons. Ingram denied that napalm had been used in Iraq at
any time:

Alice Mahon MP: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether napalm
or a similar substance has been used by the Coalition in Iraq (a) during
and (b) since the war.
Adam Ingram MP: No napalm has been used by Coalition forces in Iraq
either during the war-fighting phase or since.[11]

Ingram's partial answer relies on a distinction between previous
incendiary weapons known as napalm, and the new MK-77. This is a
distinction which the US military, which uses the weapons, does not


UK troops are working in coalition with a military that is using napalm
weapons in all but name. During the assault on Fallujah, UK soldiers
were placed under the command of US forces, despite the UK being party
to a UN Convention restricting the use of incendiaries and other
inhumane weapons.

While the UK has done much to further other parts of the convention,
including pushing for a total ban on anti-personnel mines, in this
instance the UK government is condoning the actions of its coalition
partner, even though they step well outside internationally agreed

Notes and References

This briefing for the Iraq Analysis Group was prepared by Alison
Klevnas, Per Klevnas, Rachel Laurence, Mike Lewis and Jonathan
Stevenson. The Iraq Analysis Group was set up in 2004 by former members
of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. Based in the UK, its website
is at .

[1] Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath, Human
Rights Watch, June 1992, .
[2] UN Convention On Prohibitions Or Restrictions On The Use Of Certain
Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed To Be Excessively Injurious Or
To Have Indiscriminate Effects And Protocols (1980),
. The full text is at
. State signatories are at
[3] 'US admits it used napalm bombs in Iraq', The Independent, 10 August
[4] 'Dead bodies are everywhere', Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March
[5] 'Dead bodies are everywhere', Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March
[6] 'Officials confirm dropping firebombs on Iraqi troops', San Diego
Union Tribune, 5 August 2003,
[7] 'Sailors Offload Ammo For U.S. Marines', Defend America, US Dept of
Defense, 2 February 2003,
. See also
[8] 'Officials confirm dropping firebombs on Iraqi troops', San Diego
Union Tribune, 5 August 2003,
[9] 'U.S. uses napalm gas in Fallujah ~V Witnesses',, 28
November 2004,
and 'Fallujah Napalmed', Sunday Mirror, 28 November 2004,
[10] 'U.S. drives into heart of Fallujah', San Francisco Chronicle, 10
November 2004, .
[11] Hansard, 6 December 2004,
See also

Iraq Analysis Group, March 2005
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