Chemical Reactions

By Al Kamen
Friday, November 18, 2005

American ambassadors abroad -- especially those in high-profile postings -- are often called upon to defend this country against scurrilous allegations. So it was no surprise that our man in London, mega-Bush contributor Robert H. Tuttle , fired back big time when the Independent in London last week accused the military of using chemical weapons in Iraq, specifically white phosphorus.

The controversy erupted after Italy's Rai News 24 news channel repeatedly aired a documentary that alleged many civilians had been burned to death by the incendiary substance during the assault on Fallujah a year ago. (Hey, doesn't our pal Silvio Berlusconi , the Italian prime minister, own Rai?) "These reports are not true," Tuttle wrote in Tuesday's editions of the Independent. "Had your correspondents acted responsibly," he wrote, "by checking these assertions either with the U.S. Embassy or with the Department of Defense, they would have learned the truth."

What's more, "U.S. forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons," Tuttle said in his first major foray into diplo-battle since arriving this summer. He noted that there's nothing wrong with using white phosphorus as "smoke screens and for target-marking" or flares, just not as weapons.

Alas. That same day, Lt. Col. Barry Venable , a Pentagon spokesman, was acknowledging in Washington that white phosphorus had been used at times during the fighting in Fallujah last year as an incendiary weapon -- though civilians had not been targeted. Defense officials of course could not rule out the possibility that civilians may not have been hit accidentally.

An article written by three of the soldiers in the Fallujah battles in a recent issue of Field Artillery magazine discussed their use of white phosphorous.

Venable, according to British news accounts, said a denial of the use of such weapons on the State Department's Web site had been entered more than a year ago and was based on "poor information."

Tuttle told the Times of London: "We did the best we could with the information we had, but we regret that it was not totally accurate."

The issue of white phosphorus has sparked a major flap and has been widely reported in European media, we're told -- and most likely hasn't been ignored in the Middle East, either -- but it has attracted virtually no attention in this country.

Strange Dinner-Fellows

Speaking of Iraq, two Iraqis suing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for alleged abuse by U.S. troops in Iraq -- including being put in a cage with lions -- were out to dinner with their lawyers Monday night in Georgetown.

Sherzad Khalid and Thahe Sabber are among a group of former detainees suing for damages, alleging they were brutally beaten over several months at the Abu Ghraib prison and other facilities.

They were enjoying dinner in a booth at the upscale restaurant Neyla -- the equivalent of Cafe Milano for the hip, well-to-do and well-connected in the Arab community -- when a phalanx of security people trooped in.

Following closely behind -- and taking a large table right next to the plaintiffs -- was none other than Ahmed Chalabi , the beloved, spurned and beloved again future prime minister of Iraq. Chalabi, convicted in absentia in Jordan for embezzlement and bank fraud and still under FBI investigation for playing footsie with Iran, was making the rounds this week, talking to Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney , Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and other senior administration folks.

"Look at this," Khalid said, "I come here to kick Rumsfeld's butt and here's this other Iraqi coming to kiss it." It's what makes this country great.

Chalabi's aides, meanwhile, were euphoric about his reception in Washington. No one in the administration said anything bad about him. "They all stuck to their talking points," an aide said at a private party, describing the trip as a "kiss-and-make-up visit."

A Mixed Bouquet for Rose

And now, the Odd Trio. What do Chalabi, former U.N. ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke and His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet have in common? They were all in the functional equivalent of a greenroom/studio at the Four Seasons on Tuesday evening, waiting to tape interviews for the " Charlie Rose Show."

Hard to imagine the scene as they greeted one another.

Bush, Clinton May Team Up for Commencement

But let's not forget the newest cast of "The Odd Couple," former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton . The Disaster Twins, who've been working to help victims of the Asian tsunami and more recently those of Hurricane Katrina, are said to be looking at giving a joint commencement address next May at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Moving Up . . .

Karen Haas , floor assistant to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and before that a top aide to former minority leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), has been tapped by Hastert to be the 33rd clerk of the House of Representatives. Haas, who has worked for Hastert since 1999, has also been a lobbyist for ABC/Cap Cities. She replaces longtime clerk Jeff Trandahl , who is leaving after 20 years of public service.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company