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U.S. Assails Use of Human Shields

Defense secretary warns the Iraqi leadership that the strategy will be considered a war crime.

February 20, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned Iraqi military commanders Wednesday that using human shields against U.S. bombs would be punishable as a war crime.

The threat from the Pentagon followed intelligence reports that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has told leaders of his Baath Party that he plans to drive up civilian casualties by using human shields in any U.S. invasion.

Even the use of voluntary human shields would be a war crime, Rumsfeld said. That prospect arose as about 100 mostly European antiwar activists arrived in Baghdad to stand between a U.S.-led force and schools and other sites.

The tactic of using human shields is part of a larger strategy that includes putting military arsenals beneath schools, mosques, orphanages and cultural sites so that an attacker would also kill civilians, defense officials say.

It poses a dilemma for military planners who fear that civilian casualties would further inflame world opinion, which in Europe and elsewhere is already building against any war on Iraq.

"It is a practice that reveals contempt for the norms of humanity, the laws of armed conflict, and, I am advised, Islamic law, practice and belief," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon. "These are not tactics of war, they are crimes of war.... Those who follow [Hussein's] orders to use human shields will pay a severe price for their actions."

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the price would be a war crimes tribunal. Any deaths of "even those people who may volunteer for this purpose" could amount to "grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions," he said.

Nevertheless, Rumsfeld said, the Pentagon will not necessarily alter its strategy when it comes to attacking sites protected by human shields.

The warning was the administration's latest foray in an ongoing campaign to undermine Hussein's control by forcing his commanders to choose between his orders and their own welfare, said Harlan Ullman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"What the administration is doing is laying it out very clearly that Iraqi military people who participate in nasty things will be taken to court and dealt with extremely harshly," Ullman said. "It's all part of psychological warfare, which is one of the things this administration is doing well."

That job grew more complicated Sunday, when a group of antiwar activists calling itself "Human Shields" led a caravan from London to Baghdad. A posting on the group's Web site said the protesters would encircle power stations and schools based on specific sites suggested by an Iraqi group called the Friendship, Peace and Solidarity Organization in Baghdad.

It remains unclear how many foreigners are in the Iraqi capital, where, intelligence reports suggest, Hussein is seeking to surround himself with civilians. For weeks, defense officials have privately warned the dozens of journalists based there that they present tempting targets for Hussein loyalists who want to kidnap Westerners.

But it is not merely foreigners who would serve as shields, administration officials say. Speaking in Nashville on Feb. 10, President Bush alluded to the prospect of widespread civilian casualties among the Iraqi population if a war breaks out. He said that Hussein has begun commingling his soldiers and military weaponry with the civilian population and that the tactic is designed to pin blame on the U.S. for civilian Iraqi casualties.

"American troops will act in the honorable traditions of our military and in the highest moral traditions of our country," Bush said. "We will try in every way we can to spare innocent life. The people of Iraq are not our enemies."

Bush said Hussein regards his own people as "entirely expendable when their suffering serves his purposes."

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