American soldiers now being held as prisoners of war in Iraq had nothing to do with the Bush administration's decision many months ago not to grant prisoner-of-war status to Taliban fighters detained by the US in its war on terrorism. But American POWs may face a tougher time in Iraqi captivity because of it.
Military and international law experts say that administration waffling over whether the Geneva Conventions should apply to terror suspects held by the US has somewhat eroded America's moral authority to demand full Iraqi compliance with international law now that US troops are the captives.
"What everyone is learning in Iraq is what many of us said in Afghanistan: The Geneva Conventions are profoundly important to American servicemen and women," says Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "Respecting the conventions preserves our ability to complain when the rights of Americans are abused."
The issue arises as the Iraqis force American war prisoners to pose for television cameras. On Sunday, five soldiers were briefly questioned on camera, and on Monday two American Apache helicopter pilots were offered up for international display. The televised images are of apparent importance to Iraqi defense aims, putting a human and perhaps vulnerable face on what must seem to many Iraqis an all-powerful American military machine.
Ironically, such images can be a slight source of comfort to family members by offering verification that particular prisoners are at least alive.
Similar television tactics were used by Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991, including releasing images of captured pilots who had been beaten during interrogations. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iraqis forced Iranian POWs to denounce the government in Tehran.
But potential violations haven't only been on the Iraqi side.
Photographs and televised images of Iraqi prisoners in US custody have also been widely distributed in recent days. The Washington Post on Sunday published an above-the-fold page-one photo of a blindfolded Iraqi with his hands bound by plastic cuffs, an image that raised concerns among some international-law experts.
One early US war aim has been to trigger mass defections among Iraqi troops, and such photos might hurt Iraqi morale and encourage more defections.
The issue is complicated by the presence on the battlefield of scores of reporters with the ability to immediately broadcast war images to news outlets.
Legal experts say using prisoners of war for propaganda purposes is a violation of the letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions, which set humanitarian rules for the conduct of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors compliance with the Geneva accords, has urged both sides in the war to avoid the release of images of POWs to the media.
"Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violent intimidation, insults, and public curiosity," says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
"It was culturally part of the construct [of the accords] that the profession of arms was a noble and chivalrous undertaking," Mr. Fidell says. "That is why the Geneva Convention refers to preserving the honor of prisoners."
Such requirements can run counter to the ugly impulses of human nature that often arise in the midst of a bitterly fought military triumph. In World War II some 200 US and British soldiers were paraded through the streets of Rome and forced to endure insults and other indignities. Fidell says the officer who staged the event was later prosecuted for it as a war criminal.
Michael Noone, a military-justice expert at Catholic University Law School, says the US has been burned in past conflicts against opponents who used softer interpretations of the Geneva protections or didn't abide by them at all.
He says this history makes it even more important that the US maintain strict compliance: "Any time we show less than full commitment to the rule of law we have diminished our moral stature and we have also made it easier for opponents to refuse to comply."
But Mr. Noone adds that in places like Iraq - with a long history of mistreating war prisoners - slight shifts in US compliance are unlikely to influence the way Saddam Hussein treats American POWs.
Nonetheless, US consistency is important, says Allister Hodgett of Amnesty International. "We have witnessed Donald Rumsfeld asserting [during the war against the Taliban] that the Geneva Conventions were perhaps a little out of date for the world we face, and then this weekend arguing, rightly, that the Geneva Conventions have to be respected in full," he says.
"Nothing the US says or does reduces Iraq's obligation to abide by the laws of war," Mr. Hodgett says, "but I would hope that the Defense Department and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld are reflecting on the message they have sent."
"If Saddam Hussein mistreats a POW nobody says, 'He is doing it, so we can too,' " Mr. Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says. "But if the US is seen as abusing the rights of POWs, all bets are off because the United States is a standard-setter."