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US Lays Out Possible Basis for Future War Crimes Charges for Iraq - 2003-04-07

As coalition forces squeeze Baghdad, U.S. officials are planning for Iraq's post-war future, including war crimes trials for Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders. Top U.S. legal officials enumerated some of the initial allegations that could form the basis for future war crimes charges, and said coalition forces have been instructed to gather and protect potential evidence.

The U.S. ambassador for war crime issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, said the Baghdad government has committed numerous violations and atrocities against Iraqi civilians and coalition forces.

"I think it is safe to say, during the course of hostilities, we have seen a systematic pattern of abuses committed by the Iraqi forces to the extent that we can call them textbook. There has been a complete disregard for the law by the regime, as well as a complete disregard for human life. The Iraqi regime, by blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians has caused numerous civilian casualties, and has put thousands, or countless, Iraqi civilians in harms way," Ambassador Prosper said.

Ambassador Prosper said illegal actions by the Iraqi military during the first weeks of the war include firing on their own people trying to escape fighting in the southern city of Basra and pretending to surrender, then firing their weapons to kill coalition soldiers.

He also accused Iraqi soldiers of wearing civilian clothing and firing from civilian homes, hospitals, mosques, and schools, as well as attempting to hide weapons in those civilian buildings.

The ambassador also cited reports that Iraqi irregulars and "death squads" have used ambulances for transportation.

Ambassador Prosper also said Iraqi civilians have been forced into combat at gunpoint or under the threat their families or loved ones would be killed.

He also accused the Iraqi military of executing soldiers who have tried to leave their units.

Ambassador Prosper said coalition forces have already begun to collect evidence. "As a result, we have begun to catalogue the numerous abuses, both past and present, that have been committed by the Iraqi regime. Our troops have been given the additional mission of securing and preserving evidence of war crimes and atrocities that they uncover. As President Bush has stated, war criminals will be prosecuted. The day of Iraq's liberation will also be a day of justice. For any war crimes committed against U.S. personnel, our policy is that we will investigate and we will prosecute," he said.

The Special Assistant to the Judge Advocate General for the U.S. Army, W. Hays Parks, accused Iraq of violating the Geneva Convention by mistreating coalition prisoners of war, by humiliating them on Iraqi television, and by airing gruesome footage of soldiers killed in action.

He said Iraqis involved in war crimes can be prosecuted by the United States and tried by court martial, military commissions, and federal district courts.

The plans bypass the international war crimes tribunals that have been used after other conflicts, such as the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Parks said other countries, like Britain and Kuwait, are also likely to take legal steps against Iraqi war criminals. "Our focus right now is on winning the war. We are basically in what I would call Step One, trying to put together - collect the information, and then have the national leadership make those types of decisions, no doubt with coordination with some of our coalition partners," he said.

Ambassador Prosper made it clear that U.S. prosecutors will aggressively target Saddam Hussein and members of his family who survive the war.

He said the sentences can range from incarceration to the death penalty. "I think when we are particularly discussing the abuses of the past, as well as the current abuses, we need to look at the leadership. We have put, over the years, a sharp focus on the actions of Saddam Hussein, his sons, individuals such as "Chemical Ali" [General Ali Hassan Al Majid] and others. Because by the nature of the regime, we do understand that a lot of the orders for the atrocities came from the top," Ambassador Prosper said.

Ambassador Prosper said, while the United States will prosecute anyone committing war crimes against U.S. soldiers, expatriate Iraqis with legal experience will set up courts to hear cases about atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein's regime before the war.

Unlike the Iraqis, Pentagon officials say, coalition forces are providing Iraqi prisoners of war with the best housing possible, adequate food, medical care, and visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.