Home > Fire Bombs in Iraq: Napalm By Any Other Name
This briefing examines the continuing use of incendiary weapons by the US military in Iraq. US officials have been forced to admit using the MK-77 incendiary, a modern form of napalm, at least during the initial fighting stage of the war. In direct contradiction, the UK government continues to deny that such weapons have been used in Iraq at any time. The UK is party to an international convention banning incendiaries where they may cause harm to civilians.
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 most notoriously used 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.
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 incendiary weapons is restricted under the 1980 UN Convention on Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects. Protocol III of this Convention makes it "prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons" (article II.2). The UK ratified both the Convention and Protocol III on 13 February 1995, and remains fully bound to them. More than 80 other countries around the world have ratified the treaty, and almost none retain incendiary weapons in their arsenals. However, although the United States has ratified the convention, it has not signed up to the protocol on incendiary weapons. It continues to stockpile and use napalm-type weapons.
“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. Firebombs in Iraq
Incendiary weapons have been issued to US forces in Iraq, apparently mainly to 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.
Two embedded reporters (from the Sydney Morning Herald and CNN) witnessed a fire bomb attack on an Iraqi observation post near 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.” 
Despite this and other eyewitness accounts, US officials initially denied claims that napalm weapons were being deployed. However, as military personnel and journalists in Iraq persistently presented evidence of their use, by August 2003 Pentagon spokesmen were forced to admit that MK-77 firebombs had been dropped. This has since been confirmed by the State Department, in direct contradiction to UK government statements.
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.
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.
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’s no great way to die’. He added, ‘The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect.’
The US Marine Corps remained supplied with MK-77s well after the initial fighting phase. In August 2003 a spokeswoman for Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois confirmed they were producing a further 500 MK-77s for supply to the Corps.
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.
Rumours 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 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.
“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 melted.”
In February this year Iraqi Health Ministry official Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli reportedly alleged that napalm, along with other banned substances, had been used in Fallujah. He had been commissioned by the Ministry to assess conditions in the city after the assault. The US strenuously denies that any MK-77 bombs were used in the Fallujah assault.
5. UK Denials
Since the first reports emerged of napalm-type weapons being used in Iraq, the question has repeatedly been raised in the UK Parliament. UK Ministers have explicitly denied that napalm-type incendiaries have been used in Iraq by US troops. They have even specifically denied the use of MK-77 weapons. This is in the face of official admissions by the US government.
This exchange, from 11 January 2005, is perhaps the most comprehensive denial:
Harry Cohen MP: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether Mark 77 firebombs have been used by Coalition forces (a) in Iraq and (b) in or near areas in Iraq where civilians lived; whether this weapon is equivalent to napalm; whether (i) the UK and (ii) the US has signed the UN convention banning the use of napalm against civilian targets; and if he will make a statement.
Adam Ingram MP: The United States have confirmed to us that they have not used Mark 77 firebombs, which are essentially napalm canisters, in Iraq at any time. No other Coalition member has Mark 77 firebombs in their inventory.
The United Kingdom is bound under Protocol III to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) not to use incendiary weapons (which would include napalm) against military targets located within concentrations of civilians.
US policy in relation to international conventions is a matter for the US Government, but all of our allies are aware of their obligations under international humanitarian law .
Can Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram really be unaware that the US Pentagon and State Department both admit that Mark 77 firebombs were used in Iraq during the invasion? That US military personnel are talking openly about using these weapons?
The US State Department writes in a recent statement, “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.”  Is the US government saying one thing on its public website, and something else in private to its allies?
The UK government appears not to know what the rest of the world has been told: that US forces in Iraq are supplied with and have used the napalm-type incendiaries MK-77. These were used against Iraqi soldiers during the initial fighting phase of the war, and there are reports that their use continues.
Along with the majority of countries, the UK is party to a convention which restricts the use of these 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 when it employs internationally reviled weapons.
This briefing for the Iraq Analysis Group was prepared by Alison Klevnäs, Per Klevnäs, 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, it is an independent, volunteer-run organisation. For more information please contact us.
1 Endless Torment: The 1991 Uprising in Iraq And Its Aftermath, Human Rights Watch, June 1992.
2 ‘US admits it used napalm bombs in Iraq’, The Independent, 10 August 2003.
3 ‘‘Dead bodies are everywhere’’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 2003.
4 ‘‘Dead bodies are everywhere’’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 2003.
5’‘Napalm by any other name: Pentagon denial goes up in flames’’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 August 2003.
6 Hansard, 11 January 2005; US State Department, 09 December 2004, http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archi...
7 ‘Officials confirm dropping firebombs on Iraqi troops’, San Diego Union Tribune, 5 August 2003.
8 ‘Sailors Offload Ammo For U.S. Marines’, Defend America, US Dept of Defense, 2 February 2003.
9 ‘Officials confirm dropping firebombs on Iraqi troops’, San Diego Union Tribune, 5 August 2003.
10 ’’Napalm by any other name: Pentagon denial goes up in flames’’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 August 2003.
11 ‘U.S. uses napalm gas in Fallujah - Witnesses’, Al-Jazeera.com, 28 November 2004 and ‘Fallujah Napalmed’, Sunday Mirror, 28 November 2004.
12 ‘U.S. drives into heart of Fallujah’, San Francisco Chronicle, 10 November 2004.
13 ‘U.S. used banned weapons in Fallujah - Health Ministry’, Al-Jazeera.com, 3 February 2005
14 Hansard, 11 January 2005
15 US State Department, 09 December 2004, http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archi...