To most observers, the war in Iraq is over, and the responsibilities of American and British troops there are shifting from combat to peacekeeping. But last night, U.S. President George W. Bush, in an address to the American people, would not say that hostilities have ended. Some say this is because an official declaration that the war is over would require U.S. forces to release Iraqi prisoners of war, who may still have information integral in the search for weapons of mass destruction or the country's deposed president, Saddam Hussein, and other government officials.
Washington, 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is declaring that significant fighting is over in Iraq, but he is careful not to declare a formal end to the conflict.
Bush made the announcement last night (0300 Prague time) in an address to the American people that he delivered from the deck of the aircraft carrier "U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln" in the Pacific Ocean as it steamed to its home port in California from the Persian Gulf.
Bush said: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
But, the U.S. president said, more work remains: "We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous. We are pursuing and finding leaders of the old regime who will be held to account for their crimes. We have begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated."
Some analysts say Bush wants to avoid saying the war is over because he is not ready to release prisoners of war. They note that some of them might, under interrogation, be able to lead allied investigators to Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, to high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's government, or even to Hussein himself.
A law professor who specializes in human rights issues, Ralph Steinhardt of George Washington University in Washington, tells RFE/RL that he takes a dim view of Bush's decision to keep Iraqi prisoners in detention by refusing to declare the war over.
Steinhardt says Bush and his military advisers clearly want as much time as they can get to extract valuable information from the prisoners. But he acknowledges that the Bush administration appears to closely follow the Geneva Convention on the conduct of war.
"This is not an administration that has taken a lot of care with international law generally. I guess it's nice to know that there are some provisions that they do think are to be honored," he said. "So I assume that the Bush administration is not going to pick and choose within the Geneva Convention but will apply the convention as a whole."
Steinhardt notes that previously, Bush has disregarded the will of the international community by refusing to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on greenhouse gases, disregarded the United Nations in pursuing the war against Iraq, and even tryed to renegotiate an international treaty designed to discourage tobacco use.
This does not mean, however, that the Bush administration is embarking on a new course in which it plans to be more cooperative with the international community, according to Arthur Helton. He is the director of peace and conflict studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy research center in New York, and studies issues of international law and human rights.
Helton tells RFE/RL that it is unfair to regard Bush as utterly unilateralist. But he adds that the American president is careful to choose which international accords he endorses and which he ignores when U.S. interests are at stake.
"The U.S. is not in any sense a complete international outlaw, and it certainly does address questions of international law," Helton said. "That doesn't mean, however, that this is a new direction of engagement on the part of the United States toward its allies and former allies."
And, according to Helton, it may be too soon for anyone to say that the war in Iraq is in fact over. While armies are no longer meeting on battlefields, he notes that U.S. and British forces are still maintaining only tenuous security in the country.
In particular, Helton noted the recent confrontations in the Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in which more than a dozen Iraqi civilians have been killed by U.S. troops.
But Helton says he also accepts the notion that Bush is more interested in questioning Iraqi prisoners than in avoiding a premature declaration of an end to hostilities.
Still, Helton argues, the Geneva Convention does not prevent the United States from trying to arrest enemies that they suspect are guilty of violating international laws.
"If [U.S. officials] have reason to believe that Saddam Hussein and other key figures in his toppled regime committed war crimes or crimes against humanity," he said, "they could still seek to apprehend them and put them on trial, even after hostilities had ended."
James Ross, the senior legal adviser to Human Rights Watch, agrees. He tells RFE/RL that there is no provision in the Geneva Convention requiring the immediate repatriation of prisoners of war after a formal declaration that the conflict has ended.
Second, Ross says, any prisoner formally accused of a crime related to his conduct during the war may be held until his case is adjudicated.
Finally, according to Ross, international law focuses on people who are believed to be responsible for significant violations. That, he says, usually means high-ranking civilian and military officials, not foot soldiers:
"The concern is not with the average foot soldier -- who should, quite frankly, be returned, and apparently a number of them have been returned -- but with high-ranking Iraqi government officials. Under the Geneva Convention, even after the close of hostilities, any person who remains an imperative threat to security can be detained."
Ross says the concern of Human Rights Watch is whether U.S. and British forces hold prisoners of war for what it believes to be an unreasonable length of time, regardless of whether anyone has formally declared that hostilities have ended:
"I don't know what [U.S. forces] have in mind in terms of holding [prisoners of war], but obviously [Human Rights Watch] would object to any substantial length of time in which POWs are being held when the active hostilities are over."
Ross also says U.S. military officials must be mindful of their own troops, who may warrant incarceration for their own misbehavior during the war. He cited the incidents in Al-Fallujah, as well as cases in which American soldiers fired on civilians who refused to stop their vehicles at military checkpoints.