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Pressing Issues: Chemical Weapons Discovered in Iraq.

As Joe Strupp's cover story this month reveals, former embeds rarely shake their experiences in Iraq when they come home. Many, like Darrin Mortenson of the North County (Calif.) Times, even return to the war zone for more. In November, however, Mortenson became a central figure in an international controversy based on one of his embed articles from back in 2004.

In recent years, we have written about Mortenson, a three-time embed, several times. One year ago, I interviewed him for a Web column after he stood up for NBC reporter Kevin Sites, who had taken heat for filming a U.S. soldier shooting an injured Iraqi. For his trouble, Mortenson, a former infantry sergeant, received heaps of hate mail, with messages like "Go back to Iraq, with a target on your back." Three months ago, in our September issue, we profiled his special work back home: paying written tribute to fallen Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton.

Suddenly, in November, he gained a whole new audience.

It began with a documentary by an Italian TV network charging that the U.S. was using a napalm-like incendiary, white phosphorus, against insurgents and possibly civilians in Iraq. Witnesses in Fallujah testified, and film clips allegedly showed bodies that had been burned to the bone. While not widely covered in America, the allegations drew massive interest in Europe and much of the rest of the world.

The substance, known to soldiers as "Willie Pete" all the way back to Vietnam and meant to be used only for illumination, is not banned by international treaties -- but its use against civilians is. Some journalists who covered the story noted the irony of the U.S. using "chemical weapons" in Saddam-free Iraq, but the Pentagon "categorically" denied the charges.

Then the story for the U.S. got worse. Dozens of reporters and bloggers abroad found, then cited, a dispatch written by Darrin Mortenson for his newspaper in April 2004. Embedded with Marines, he had covered the first, unsuccessful U.S. assault on Fallujah. In that article he offered a graphic eyewitness account of Marines firing Willie Pete at insurgents hiding in a palm grove and adjacent buildings as part of a "shake and bake" operation. He confirmed the account in a new interview with the BBC.

A few days later, the Pentagon backtracked and admitted our forces do use the weapon against people, but only enemy insurgents. A spokesman called the incendiary just another part of "our conventional weapons inventory."

So how does Mortenson feel about all this? In a balanced article for his paper on Nov. 19, he observed that U.S. officials were following a pattern "familiar to anyone who closely follows the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the so-called 'Global War on Terror.' They played a game of denials, partial denials, quasi-admissions and legalistic hair-splitting that seemed to satisfy folks at home but fueled suspicions abroad." Indignation "thrives in Iraq, Europe, and the Middle East, fueling the growing sense that U.S. officials have been less than truthful and that U.S. forces use unnecessary -- if not illegal -- force in Iraq."

But he also looked at the broader context, recalling that after the U.S. won the ultimate battle for Fallujah one year ago, a general he knew claimed the assault had "broken the back of the insurgency." Now Mortenson wrote, "The broken insurgency, however, has moved, mutated and multiplied, killing more troops and reportedly recruiting more members in the year since the Fallujah battle. 'Remember Fallujah,' the new recruits say as they honor and seek to emulate the martyrs, embellishing stories of American terror in the city that gain more credibility with each fresh revelation of America's use of force there.

"Terror cells in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the region have adopted Fallujah into their names. The recent bombing of hotels in Jordan by Fallujah survivors indicate that the bombers were moved to kill even outside their country to avenge their city and the people they lost there. Even Fallujah, which is not yet completely rebuilt and which reportedly seethes with anti-American sentiment as it repopulates, risks returning to its former status of insurgent citadel.

"The latest revelations that U.S. forces used white phosphorus, however legal or however justified in military terms, could not have helped staunch the flow of new blood to the cause. Nor could the appearance that the U.S. tried to deny it."

And, as the rest of the world continues to shake its head over the use of Willie Pete in Fallujah, "it's fair to ask again," Mortenson wrote, "whether the assault really broke the back of the insurgency or gave it wings to fly."
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Comment:Pressing Issues: Chemical Weapons Discovered in Iraq.
Author:Mitchell, Greg
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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