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Pentagon Unable to Prove War Crimes Committed Against US Troops - 2003-11-11

This is Veterans Day in the United States, a solemn day to honor all those men and women who have served in the armed forces. The commemoration is taking on special significance this year because tens of thousand of military personnel are deployed in Iraq. Nearly 400 have been killed there, and over 2,000 wounded.

It may be one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Iraq war, and one of the few known cases of possible war crimes carried out directly against American soldiers.

In late March, U.S. troops in a maintenance unit went astray in the town of Nasiriyah, and were ambushed by Iraqi forces. Eleven soldiers were killed and five others captured. When Iraqi authorities released photos of the prisoners, they also released photos of some of the dead American troops.

Some had what appeared to be head wounds, indicating to Pentagon authorities that they may have been executed, apparently in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

But more than seven months later, U.S. military sources tell VOA, they have been unable to uncover any evidence that would prove the soldiers were murdered.

The sources say this does not mean there was no Iraqi war crime, only that they have been unable to interview any witnesses, or discover any documents that would conclusively prove what actually happened.

The first top Pentagon official to speak out publicly on the deaths was Marine General Peter Pace, who is deputy chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a televised interview with CNN's Larry King in late March, General Pace said the only thing that had surprised him about the conduct of the war up to that point was that "the forces that are loyal to Saddam Hussein have already committed so many war crimes." Among the examples he then listed was the execution of prisoners of war. He did not specifically say "American" prisoners, but his meaning seemed clear, as he was referring specifically to the first week of the ground war.

But just days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to back away from the charge.

He mentioned that Saddam Hussein's regime had executed POWs, but in an exchange with reporters he later denied any knowledge of American prisoners being executed.

"You stated flatly that American POWs have been executed. On what basis do you make that statement?" asked a reporter. "Did I say 'American' prisoners of war?" replied Mr. Rumsfeld. "I didn't...."

"Are you saying that there have not been American prisoners executed then?" continued the reporter. "There may very well have been," answered Mr. Rumsfeld, "but I'm not announcing that, if that's what you're asking."

Officials of the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division have been looking into the incident, the same one that led to the capture and subsequent rescue of Jessica Lynch, the celebrated former American POW, who has been the subject of a made-for-television movie, and who has a new book out this week on her experiences as a prisoner.

In the book, it is alleged she was the victim of a sexual assault after her capture. That, too, would constitute a war crime.

U.S. officials have disclosed to VOA that they are holding some 4,000 Iraqis on suspicion of committing crimes against U.S. and other coalition troops, or because they are considered to have value as intelligence sources.

However, the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cannot say how many may be accused specifically of war crimes.

Pentagon sources have indicated the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq hopes eventually to allow a newly reconstituted Iraqi judiciary to prosecute former loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime for crimes against humanity.

But it is uncertain whether any Iraqi accused of crimes against U.S. soldiers will be turned over, or whether such suspects will be tried directly by American military authorities.