In Iraq, a battle for the moral high ground
Among the most explosive weapons fired by both sides are war-crimes allegations.
From Baghdad come angry accusations that US and British planes are deliberately killing civilians by targeting their bombs at marketplaces, homes, and food warehouses.Skip to next paragraph
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From the front lines come reports of Iraqis in civilian clothes opening fire after waving white flags, of hospitals used as arms depots, of Iraqi forces shooting from behind human shields, and a suicide bomber in a taxi who killed four American soldiers.
As the bitter war over territory continues in Iraq, one of the most explosive weapons both sides are deploying in the battle for international support is the allegation of enemy war crimes.
"The American government has decided to make an issue of these things to seize the moral high ground, and I think they are onto something," says Roy Gutman, author of the book "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know."
But human rights groups are warning that the United States-led armies in Iraq should also pay more regard to international humanitarian law.
"There are reports giving rise to concerns that war crimes may have been committed by both sides in the recent fighting," Amnesty International said last week.
Observers caution that until the allegations have been investigated, they are hard to judge.
"There is a worrying tendency to rush to judgment and use events for the propaganda purposes before the facts are clear," says Adam Roberts, a professor of international law at Oxford University in England. "I have never known a war with so much spin and smoke and mirrors."
American TV audiences have been shocked by pictures of dead soldiers and of captured service men and women giving their names and home towns. That is a violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of war, which protect prisoners of war from being exposed to "public curiosity."
"We would hope the Iraqis will stop this," says Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, which administers the conventions. "We have reminded the Iraqi government of its obligations in this matter, and we have received signals that they understand them."
Arab viewers have been more outraged by graphic images of children who died in two explosions in Baghdad last week, one of which killed 55 civilians, according to the Iraqi authorities.
US officials have denied responsibility for the first blast, and say they are investigating the second. But even if they were caused by US missiles, they would not constitute a war crime unless they were deliberate attacks on civilians, or the result of "reckless or negligent" targeting, says Louise Doswald-Beck, president of the International Commission of Jurists.
"They could have been a genuine mistake," she adds.
Dismissing Iraqi claims that they were intentional attacks on civilian targets, US Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Saturday that as far as he knew, only seven Tomahawk cruise missiles had missed their targets, and that none of them had exploded.
"The Americans put a tremendous amount of thought into targeting," says Mr. Gutman. "They lawyer every target" to ensure that it is a legitimate military objective.
The Pentagon has sent dozens of military lawyers to the region to help Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine commanders choose strategies, targets, and even the weapons, angle of entry, and payload to be used.
Even so, questions are being raised about some of the targeting, with the missile strikes on Iraqi TV especially controversial, in light of the international uproar that followed US attacks on Serbian TV in Belgrade during the Kosovo war.
US military spokesmen have insisted that President Saddam Hussein has used TV as a "command and control" mechanism to direct his forces, which would make broadcast facilities a legitimate target under international law.
Independent observers, however, have voiced suspicions that the real intent of the attacks was to put an end to Iraqi officials' regular and morale-boostingly confident appearances on Iraqi TV.
"The bombing of a television station simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda is unacceptable," Amnesty International's director for international law, Claudio Cordone, said last week. "It is a civilian object, and thus protected."
On the other side, Iraqi forces "are using almost every shortcut in the book" of war crimes as they resort to guerrilla tactics to harass and hold up US and British troops, claims Gutman. "They don't think they can win the war if they stick by the rules."