In March 2005, an official of the interim government in Iraq, Health Ministry investigator Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli allegedly held a press conference regarding the Ministry’s official investigation by a hand picked medical team of claims that, in the assault on Fallujah, US Marines and other Coalition forces had employed incendiary and chemical weapons against insurgents and civilians alike. The press conference was attended by over 20 major American and international news outlets, yet (via Chris Floyd) not one reported on what Dr. Ash-Shaykhli said.

Two days after the US State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq’s health ministry, told a Baghdad press conference that the U.S. military used internationally banned weapons during its deadly November 2004 offensive in the city of Fallujah.

During the attack on the city, eyewitnesses described horrific scenes that analysts have attributed to attacks with napalm, a poisonous cocktail of polystyrene and jet fuel that has the capacity of melting human flesh and bones.

Dr. ash-Shaykhli stated that his medical teams, assigned the responsibility of investigating the health situation in Fallujah by Iraq’s health ministry, had done research that proved U.S. occupation forces used substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals there.

This report, published widely by Arab and independent news media outlets, shouldn’t have surprised anyone. In the UK, The Sunday Mirror had previously published a story, dated November 28, 2004, in which similar claims had been raised:

US troops are secretly using outlawed napalm gas to wipe out remaining insurgents in and around Fallujah.

News that President George W. Bush has sanctioned the use of napalm, a deadly cocktail of polystyrene and jet fuel banned by the United Nations in 1980, will stun governments around the world.

And last night Tony Blair was dragged into the row as furious Labour MPs demanded he face the Commons over it. Reports claim that innocent civilians have died in napalm attacks, which turn victims into human fireballs as the gel bonds flames to flesh.

Of course, we now know that the chemical and incendiary weapons involved in the attack on Fallujah likely did not involve napalm, nor was mustard gas or other poisonous gases likely used. The incendiary/chemical weapons that the US Government has now acknowledged using were White Phosphorus munitions. But the major American media outlets did not know this at the time.

So what made them ignore this story regarding the use of such horrific weaponry that literally melted human flesh? What made them disregard reports that clouds of poisonous gas and incendiary weapons had been used against the citizenry of Fallujah by American forces? Why did we have to wait over a year until an intrepid Italian filmmaker had produced a documentary for RAI, and an independent journalist/blogger, Mark Kraft uncovered the evidence that eventually led to the admission by the Pentagon that White Phosphorus had been used in Fallujah?

We may never know the full story as to why the major American and British news outlets dropped the ball and failed to investigate charges that American forces in Fallujah had used weapons that melted skin and poisoned Iraqi civilians. But perhaps we can glean a few of the reasons for their failure to fully cover these atrocities by examining the history of how the story was reported from the beginning up until the present.

Now cross-posted at Daily Kos.
A Lack of Curiosity?

The assault on Fallujah involved three distinct time periods: An initial siege, followed by a period of intermittent fighting in and around Fallujah, and a final assault and complete occupation of the city in November 2004 after completion of the US elections.

The initial siege of the city occurred in April, 2004. It was ordered after the widespread reports of the death four American contractors in Fallujah and the mutilation of their bodies, an event that was widely broadcast on US television. Here is how that siege is described in a Wikipedia article about the occupation of Fallujah (footnotes omitted):

The attempt by coalition forces to regain control of Fallujah, Operation Vigilant Resolve, led to about 40 U.S. Marine deaths. Estimates of the number of Iraqi deaths (both insurgents and civilians) in the attack range from 271 (according to Iraqi Ministry of Health officials to 731 (according to Rafie al-Issawi, the head of the local hospital.

Even in this early period, there were reports that indicated American forces were using white phosphorus munitions for offensive purposes, as this report (published by the North County Times of San Diego)by a reporter embedded with the Marines engaged in the siege indicated:

. . . Bogert is a mortar team leader who directed his men to fire round after round of high explosives and white phosphorus charges into the city Friday and Saturday, never knowing what the targets were or what damage the resulting explosions caused.

* * *

Shake ‘n’ bake

“Gun up!” Millikin yelled when they finished a few seconds later, grabbing a white phosphorus round from a nearby ammo can and holding it over the tube.

“Fire!” Bogert yelled, as Millikin dropped it.

The boom kicked dust around the pit as they ran through the drill again and again, sending a mixture of burning white phosphorus and high explosives they call “shake ‘n’ bake” into a cluster of buildings where insurgents have been spotted all week.

That term, “shake and bake” would become infamous over 18 months later, but unfortunately, at this time no context was provided by the report as to what the white phosphorus rounds were intended to do, nor what effect they might have on the human beings who were targeted by them. Indeed, the embedded reported for the North County Times, Darrin Mortenson later told columnist Greg Mitchell, of Editor & Publisher, that:

“We didn’t give white phosphorus a second thought out there.”

One wonders how many other embedded reporters had similar experiences, and yet failed to report them because they “didn’t give it a second thought out there”? If they had they might have discovered what we now know: that white phosphorus munitions used in this manner were intended to kill people, as clearly indicated in an article in the March edition of the US Army’s Field Artillary Magazine in which the authors stated that “WP” was an effective munition, one which they complained had not been saved often enough for “lethal missions.”

It seems likely that many of the embedded reporters must have seen evidence of burned and mutilated bodies while they accompanied US forces on their missions in and around Fallujah. Yet no one wrote about them, even after reports came out in the Arab press of charges that Americans were using “napalm” and other “chemical weapons.” Why did they not put two and two together? We know that a story in the Washington Post, dated November 10, 2004, acknowledged both the use of WP rounds by US forces, and statements by on scene Iraqi doctors of having seen burned victims:

“Usually we keep the gloves on,” said Army Capt. Erik Krivda, of Gaithersburg, 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 mujaheddin which we received were burned, and some corpses were melted.

At the least, why didn’t they investigate whether the claims of “melted corpses” and “poisonous clouds of gas” had anything to do with the WP munitions they had observed being used in Fallujah? They no doubt must have heard of the charges. Were they disinclined to believe Arab sources and reports in the Arab press regarding evidence of the use of incendiary weapons? Was it censorship by their own editors back home that kept this story from coming out sooner than it did? Or was it simply a lack of curiosity?

The Arab Reports of Napalm Use

Perhaps it was the initial reports in the Arab media of napalm use by the US the that doomed the story. As the final assault on Fallujah in November 2004 proceeded, reports began to filter out in the Arab press of horrible burns from what was, at first, attributed to napalm:

The U.S. military is secretly using banned napalm gas and other outlawed weapons against civilians in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, eyewitnesses reported.

Residents in Fallujah reported that innocent civilians have been killed by napalm attacks, a poisonous cocktail of polystyrene and jet fuel which makes the human body melt.

Since the U.S. offensive started in Fallujah earlier this month, there have been reports of “melted” bodies which proves that the napalm gas had been used.

* * *

. . . Abu Sabah, 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 them.”

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

Phosphorous arms and the napalm gas are known to have such effects. “People suffered so much from these,” Abu Sabah said.

It may have been the feeling among American reporters that these reports came from news sources highly biased against America’s role in Iraq, specifically, and its larger imprint on the Middle East, in general. We can’t be sure since American reporters have yet to write any mea culpas explaining their failure to follow up on these stories in Arab and independent media outlets.

What cannot be denied is that labeling these attacks the result of “napalm” and “napalm gas” allowed the US Government to issue denials without addressing the particulars of the eyewitness reports, and without disclosing the nature of the weapons they were using:

The fighting in Fallujah, Iraq has led to a number of widespread myths including false charges that the United States is using chemical weapons such napalm and poison gas. None of these allegations are true.

* * *

On November 12, 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a denial of the chemical weapons charge, stating:

“The United States categorically denies the use of chemical weapons at anytime in Iraq, which includes the ongoing Fallujah operation. Furthermore, the United States does not under any circumstance support or condone the development, production, acquisition, transfer or use of chemical weapons by any country. All chemical weapons currently possessed by the United States have been declared to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and are being destroyed in the United States in accordance with our obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

* * *

In both stories, Islam Online noted that U.S. forces had used napalm-like incendiary weapons during the march to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. Although all napalm in the U.S. arsenal had been destroyed by 2001, Mark-77 firebombs, which have a similar effect to napalm, were used against enemy positions in 2003.

The repetition of this story on Islam Online’s led to further misinformation. Some readers did not distinguish between what had happened in the spring of 2003, during the march to Baghdad, and in Fallujah in November 2004. They mistakenly thought napalm-like weapons had been used in Fallujah, which is not true. No Mark-77 firebombs have been used in operations in Fallujah.

Note the very careful disclaimers set forth here at this US Government website. The use of Napalm is denied, as is the use of “chemical weapons”, without making any specific reference to the white phosphorus munitions we know were used at Fallujah (and which American media reports had already disclosed). The entire tone of the piece is dismissive, and suggests that the sources in the Arab media which reported these charges are biased and without merit, without denying specifically the allegations of burned victims.

Note also the legalistic references to the Chemical Weapons convention. In this manner, they skirted the issue of whether White Phosphorus munitions used by the US military constituted chemical weapons, and could thus claim that no “chemical weapons” were used at Fallujah. The denial is a subtle one, and it would have been easy for anyone who had not investigated further to miss the fact that it was not a categorical denial of the use of weaponry that could both burn and poison its victims.

Could these seemingly categorical denials by the US, coupled with a suspicion that Arab reporting was biased, explain the failure of US and UK reporters to follow up this story? In part, perhaps. But then, you also have to assume that the Western reporters were simply too lazy or too intimidated to pursue the story. We do know that independent reporting outside the protected “Green Zone” is extremely hazardous. Insurgents have demonstrated a nasty habit of killing or kidnapping Western journalists in Iraq who lack adequate security (such as being embedded with US forces).

However, American reporters could have used Iraqi stringers to interview survivors of the Fallujah assault. They could have also by requested interviews with American troops who had been involved in the assault itself. They could even have done a little research online (assuming they had no personal experience as embedded reporters), and likely have come across Mortenson’s story in the North Count Times describing the “shake and bake” technique of mixing WP rounds with high explosive rounds. The Washington Post, for one, could have followed up on it’s own report, dated November 10, 2004, that white phosphorus was being used as a weapon in the battle for Fallujah. They already had information which suggested that there was some truth to the reports being published in the Arab press. So, something more than simple fear for one’s life must have at work here to stifle this story.

Dr. ash-Shaykhli’s Press Conference: Real or Propaganda?

For whatever reasons, the story that US forces may have been using banned or illegal weapons in the battle for Fallujah was abandoned by the American news media based in Iraq. It wouldn’t reappear until a story appeared in the Arab press of a March 2004 Baghdad press conference by a purported Iraqi interim government official by the name of Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli (in some reports “al-Sheikhli”) in which he alleged having found evidence of napalm and other chemical weapons employed against Iraqi insurgents and civilians in Fallujah. The English language story about this press conference that was most often cited subsequently in blogs and other on-line reports was first posted at

Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq’s health ministry, said that the U.S. military used internationally banned weapons during its deadly offensive in the city of Fallujah.

Dr. ash-Shaykhli was assigned by the ministry to assess the health conditions in Fallujah following the November assault there.

He said that researches, prepared by his medical team, prove that U.S. occupation forces used internationally prohibited substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals in their attacks in the war-torn city.

The health official announced his findings at a news conference in the health ministry building in Baghdad.

The press conference was attended by more than 20 Iraqi and foreign media networks, including the Iraqi ash-Sharqiyah TV network, the Iraqi as-Sabah newspaper, the U.S. Washington Post and the Knight-Ridder service.

Despite these horrific allegations, the only major American news service I’ve found that that published anything about this press conference and the claims allegedly made by Dr. Shaykhli was the Christian Science Monitor, in a single paragraph of a story, published March 7, 2005, entitled Is US Losing Authority on Human Rights?:

The US record on human rights took other hits last week. Al Jazeera also reported that Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq’s health ministry, told a press conference in Baghdad that his department’s investigation in the conflict in Fallujah show that US forces used “internationally banned weapons” during its offensive last November, including napalm and jet fuel. The United States has never signed the treaty that banned the use of napalm against civilians.

That excerpt from the Monitor’s story apparently simply relied on the report posted at as its sole source. No other American or British news outlet published a word about Dr. Shaykhli’s claims, not even the Washington Post, nor the Knight Ridder news service, despite various reports that their representatives had attended the press conference. Instead, the story was primarily covered by blogs and independent media in the United States.

Despite the story not gaining traction in any major news media, the United States government quickly moved to squash it. At their USINFO website, this release, dated March 11, 2005, suggests that the entire story of Dr. ash-Shaykhli’s press conference had been fabricated as part of a disinformation campaign:

Did U.S. Forces Use Mustard Gas in Iraq?

Deceptive, look-alike Web site spreads false story

On March 5, 2005, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez claimed that the Iraqi Health Ministry had compiled a report charging that U.S. forces used mustard gas and nerve gas in military operations in Fallujah, Iraq in late 2004. These charges are false.

• The Iraqi Ministry of Health has denied that it ever compiled such a report.

• U.S. forces have never used such weapons in Fallujah or anywhere in Iraq.

The evolution of this false claim demonstrates how disinformation from obscure sources and misleading Web sites can quickly spread worldwide.

• The false “mustard gas” claim was first made on March 1 on, a pro-al Qaeda, Arabic-language website run by a Saudi computer company that has been under U.S. suspicion for supporting terrorist activities.

• An Arab communist named Muhammad Abu Nasr, a member of the editorial board of the Web site Free Arab Voice, translated the story into English and posted it as an “Iraqi Resistance Report.”

• These reports claimed that an Iraqi Health Ministry official, Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, had announced at a March 1 press conference that the Iraqi Health Ministry had compiled a report confirming the use of mustard gas and nerve gas in Fallujah. On March 8, Dr. Shaker Al-Aineji, the Director-General of the Medical Operation Department of the Iraqi Ministry of Health stated that no one named Khalid ash-Shaykhli worked for the ministry, and that no such report existed.

• On March 2, the Web site Jihad Unspun posted an edited version of Muhammad Abu Nasr’s report, which was then used as the basis for a March 3 story on is NOT run by the well-known Qatari satellite television station Al Jazeera. Instead, is a deceptive, look-alike Web site, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which seeks to fool people into thinking it is run by the Qatari television station Al Jazeera. The English-language website of the Qatari television station is

• did not source its account to Jihad Unspun, but a typographical error that first appeared in the Jihad Unspun story (“leads me to me believe”) was repeated verbatim in the story, making it clear that it had used the Jihad Unspun story as its source.

• On March 4, the official Cuban news service Prensa Latina ran the “mustard gas” allegation, mistakenly sourcing it to the “Qatari Web site” Al Jazeera.

• On March 5, Venezulean president Hugo Chavez repeated the false “mustard gas” charge, possibly based on the Prensa Latina account.

• That same day, the Associated Press reported President Chavez’s remarks, ensuring them a worldwide audience.

• The false “mustard gas” allegation has appeared in media in Iran, China, Turkey, and other countries, and on hundreds of Web sites.

This sequence of events demonstrates how totally false, fabricated charges can rocket from obscurity to worldwide attention within a matter of days. The disinformation originated and was initially spread by, Muhammad Abu Nasr, and Jihad Unspun, which have a well-established track record of spreading false stories. The deceptive, look-alike Web site then used false pretenses to make it appear that these outrageous charges were being taken seriously by more mainstream media.

This USINFO release is informative, both for what it says and for what it doesn’t say. It denies the use of “mustard gas” and “nerve gas” but makes no mention of the allegations that napalm and napalm gas had been deployed at Fallujah. Nor does it dispute that many victims of the Fallujah assaults had incurred severe burns, with some corpses exhibiting “melted skin.” The whole focus of the release is on what it calls “false” claims of mustard gas and nerve gas use by US troops. No mention is made of the employment of white phosphorus munitions.

Second, it attacks the reputation of those who published the original story on an Arab language site, and the individual who translated that story into English, claiming they are either communists (the translator), or affiliated with al-Queda (the Saudi website where the translated story was published) . Indeed, a great deal of attention is paid to pointing out that Hugo Chavez was the primary disseminator of these “false” allegations.

Third, and most interesting of all, the USINFO release does not specifically deny that a Dr. ash-Shaykhli exists. Instead it simply refers to a statement by an official at the Iraqi Health Ministry, Dr. Shaker Al-Aineji, the Director-General of the Medical Operation Department, that “no one named Khaled. ash-Shaykhli” works for the Ministry of Health, and that no report on health conditions in Fallujah was ever prepared. However, despite my best efforts, I have been unable to find any news report that cites Dr. Shaker Al-Aineji’s statement on this matter. None. The only place his name shows up on a Google search is at the USINFO website, or at sites that link to this particular USINFO release. Perhaps he is widely quoted in the Arab press. I can’t say, but he certainly doesn’t appear in any English language reporting about this, or any other matter. What credentials he has, and whether he really exists, I can’t say.

This is interesting for several reasons. Why didn’t Iraq’s Minister of Health or the US Ambassador to Iraq issue a statement disavowing the ash-Shaykhli allegations? If the story was indeed part of a disinformation campaign by al-Queda and/or Arab communists, it seems to me that you would want to have a more official response, if only to try to discredit the story in the Arab world. Furthermore, using a little known State Department “information” website as the primary place to debunk the ash-Shaykhli story makes no sense. Unless, that is, they really weren’t very concerned with discrediting the story in Arab countries.

Still, the story was out there. We know the Christian Science Monitor referred to it in their March 7, 2005 story, and apparently the Associated Press did as well, in their reporting on the statements made by Hugo Chavez about the US attack on Fallujah. Were American reporters discouraged by their State Department and Pentagon sources not to run the story? Did they simply not trust the fact that the initial reports were posted by Arab sources? Did they find it impossible to believe the stories of “mustard and nerve gas use” and so simply disregarded the rest of the allegations of charred and melted corpses? Did they investigate the story in any way? Or did they simply accept the statements made by USINFO on the matter at face value that the entire story was merely terrorist propaganda without any basis in reality?

Who can say. The true story of Dr. ash-Shaykhli’s March 2005 press conference remains shrouded in mystery. All we know is that the major American newspapers and news services never bothered to write anything on the subject until after the RAI documentary about the use of white phosphorus in the Fallujah attack was broadcast on Italian television last November , 2005

As a side note, I have emailed reporters and editors at the Washington Post and the Knight-Ridder News Service, in an attempt to discern whether their reporters did attend a press conference in Baghdad by a Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli in March 2005, or if they have any information to either confirm or deny. I’ve also requested from them and others who reported the story whether they have any information regarding the existence of either Dr. ash-Shaykhli or Dr. Al-Aineji, and whether they now, or ever in the past, worked for Iraq’s Ministry of Health. Other than a reply from Chris Floyd, who informed me that he had no independent knowledge of the facts in question, I have yet to receive any replies to my inquiries.

Part 2 of this story will examine the reporting about white phosphorus after its use by US forces in the attack on Fallujah was revealed in November, 2005.

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