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Iraq: U.S. Says Baghdad Violating The 'Rules Of War'

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The U.S. increasingly is pointing the finger at Iraq, saying its forces are breaking the rules of war dating back to the 19th century. Such charges -- including allegations that Iraq executed U.S. prisoners and illegally used a hospital as a base of operations -- are potent pieces of information. If true, they would certainly help win over skeptical world opinion that the war in Iraq is just.

Prague, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The concept that war has rules seems like a contradiction in terms. The killing and destruction continue -- rules or no rules.

But the code, first compiled in Geneva in 1864, aims to remove the grosser forms of misconduct, such as killing prisoners after they are captured, in the best interests of all parties to a conflict. And it is just these forms of gross misconduct that the United States increasingly is accusing Iraq of committing.

U.S. General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told CNN television that several American soldiers were "executed" after surrendering to Iraqi forces.

He was apparently referring to what befell a dozen soldiers last weekend when their supply convoy was ambushed in southern Iraq. Iraqi television showed survivors being interrogated, plus dead bodies. Some of these corpses appeared to have bullet wounds to the forehead, suggesting possible execution.

Although Pace stated the executions as a fact, other defense officials said they are still gathering evidence to substantiate the allegations.

Meanwhile, Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Muhammad al-Duri, has denied any wrongdoing by his country, saying this week: "We are respecting the international humanitarian law and we will respect the Geneva Convention and we will respect all the prisoners of war and we will treat them appropriately as the Geneva Convention asks us to do."

In another case, the sequence of events is more clearly documented. That's the incident in which, according to an official U.S. statement, Iraqi troops were using a hospital as a firing post for attacks on U.S. forces. The incident occurred this week in the southern city of Nasiriya, the scene of heavy fighting.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke had this to say: "The Iraqi military even used a hospital as a fortress, firing on [U.S.] Marines. During time of war, a hospital is always considered to be a safe place for the sick and the wounded. The building was clearly marked as a hospital by a flag with a red crescent designed to protect it from attack."

Article 9 of the Geneva Conventions states that special protection from attack is granted to civilian hospitals marked with the Red Cross or Red Crescent symbol. The Americans claim that U.S. Marines captured some 170 Iraqi soldiers at the hospital, plus arms, including a tank, and chemical suits.

The U.S. version of events has not been independently confirmed. But if proven, the misuse of a protected symbol, such as the Red Crescent, is a war crime.

The statement goes on to say that the captured soldiers, who were not armed, were wearing a mixture of mostly civilian clothing, with parts of military uniforms. The reference to clothing is significant, in that to meet "lawful combatant" status the fighters must be clad in uniforms and bear their weapons openly.

Reports have said that some of the fiercest opposition to the allied advance has come from fighters in civilian clothing, and that these people could be regular army men, elite Republican Guardsmen or special Ba'athist militia.

Attacking an opposing military force while masquerading as a civilian would be considered a war crime. Participants in such irregular or guerrilla activity need not be accorded formal combatant status, and may be legally punished for their activity.

The issue is relevant in that military analysts now predict the Iraqis will try to use irregulars and guerrilla tactics to attack allied supply lines and rear-guard troops. In fact, President Saddam Hussein has called on loyalists to do so.

U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, speaking at a U.S. Central Command press briefing at Camp Sayliyah, Qatar, was sharply critical of the Iraqi activity. "The practices that have been conducted by these [Iraqi] paramilitaries and by these others who are out there, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not in uniform, are more akin to the behaviors of global terrorists than they are to a nation," Brooks said.

Not everybody views that assessment as impartial. Historically speaking, the guerrilla and partisan movements of World War II in Europe aroused popular sympathy for their bravery, if not always for their politics.

Daniel Plash is a senior analyst with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. He told RFE/RL, "One needs to be aware that the rules of war do extend to irregular forces and we need to be very careful about characterizing as terrorists people who in their own lights are simply defending their own homes."

Plesh noted that the U.S. charge on this score may not be entirely fair. He said that U.S. Special Forces are widely reported to have been in operation in civilian clothes in both Afghanistan and northern Iraq.