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US Prepares for Prosecution of Iraqi War Criminals

As the U.S. military intensifies its attack on Baghdad, U.S. officials are already talking about how to prosecute Iraqi leaders accused of war crimes.

U.S. and British military officials have accused Iraqi forces of a wide range of war crimes, including suicide bombings, using civilians as human shields and using civilian hospitals to stockpile weapons.

After coalition bombs destroyed a market in downtown Baghdad in the early days of the war, Iraq charged coalition forces with deliberately targeting civilians.

Louise Doswald-Beck is president of the International Committee of Jurists, based in Geneva. She says that even though the U.S.-led war in Iraq does not have United Nations approval and Iraq says it is defending itself against an invasion, both sides are obliged to adhere to a code of conduct outlined more than half a century ago in the Geneva Conventions.

Ms. Doswald-Beck says the law is clear on the criminality of faked surrenders and suicide bombings, which have been used by Iraqi forces against U.S. and British troops.

"First of all, the use of suicide attacks is a war crime of perfidy," she said. "That's because individuals concerned are behaving as civilians and not carrying their arms openly. And for that reason, it is perfidious, pretending to be civilians and therefore allowed to be respected and attacking is perfidious action. "

On the other hand, Ms. Doswald-Beck says Iraqi accusations that U.S. bombings are targeting civilians would be harder to prove.

"The bombardments and such are much harder to evaluate because some of the bombings which hit the civilian areas may well have been accidental and, if that's the case, may not have been a war crime," she added.

Coalition commanders have insisted they are taking every precaution to ensure their missiles are aimed at only military targets.

Attacks on the state TV station would be banned under international humanitarian law if the attack were designed to undermine civilian morale. U.S. military leaders say the building was a legitimate target because it also housed a military communications center.

Legal scholars agree urban warfare complicates the issue of war crimes because of the inevitable civilian casualties.

U.S. officials also accuse Iraqi forces of abusing the rights of U.S. prisoners of war by showing them on television and by broadcasting videotape of American soldiers killed in action.

The U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes Issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, said evidence is being collected for use in any future war crimes trial.

"Our troops have been given the additional mission of securing and preserving evidence of war crimes and atrocities that they uncover," he said. "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."

Mr. Prosper says the United States will prosecute anyone who commits war crimes against U.S. soldiers.

He says Iraqis with legal experience will set up other courts to deal with the leadership's human rights violations that pre-date the current conflict.

But that raises concerns for human rights scholars like Richard Dicker, who directs the New York-based International Justice Program for Human Rights Watch.

He agrees the Iraqi leadership must be held accountable for past atrocities that include genocide, the use of chemical weapons, forced evacuations, torture and other abuses.

"We have looked very carefully and thought very hard and believe it is absolutely essential to hold senior individuals to account," Mr. Dicker said. "And that will be crucial in enabling Iraq to make a transition to a society where law can be respected."

But he raises concerns that a tribunal run only by Iraqi jurists could be seen as what he calls a victor's justice by those who won the war against those who lost. Mr. Dicker underlines the advantages of an impartial international war crimes tribunal.

"In any effort to try those crimes we believe a few basic principles must be respected, and those include impartiality, independence and fairness," he said. "What I mean is that the individuals no matter what they are accused of receive a fair trial, through a court that is independent of political pressure from any order and that the trial be impartial."

Mr. Dicker says the three principles must be the bedrock of any effort to fairly prosecute Iraqi war crimes if justice is to be served.