A senior Pentagon official says Iraq is engaged in an extensive and growing effort to protect its military capabilities by placing weapons in civilian areas.

A senior Pentagon official is accusing Saddam Hussein's government of putting Iraqi civilians and the country's cultural and religious heritage at risk through its efforts to protect military assets.

The official, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on condition of anonymity, says Iraq is placing missiles, rocket launchers and other military equipment near mosques, hospitals, shopping areas, sports stadiums and even cemeteries.

The official says Iraq has been conducting such shielding efforts since before the 1991 Gulf war. But he says the effort has grown both in size and sophistication.

The official notes that in the past Iraq has also held western hostages as involuntary human shields while encouraging Iraqis and members of peace groups to become voluntary shields at strategic facilities. An estimated 100 to 200 foreigner volunteers are believed to be in Baghdad at the present time.

The senior official declines to say whether he believes such tactics are effective, saying only that if individuals have no respect for the laws of armed conflict, then it could be argued the use of human shields is smart.

But the official says if there are civilian deaths in any new war as a result of collateral damage from military strikes, the burden for those casualties will be on Saddam Hussein.

In the past, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has called the use of human shields a practice that, in his words, reveals contempt for the norms of humanity.

For his part, General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the use of noncombatants to shield potential military targets a war crime.

But General Myers has also said that, while coalition forces will do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties in the event of a new war, there may be some situations where military necessity will require action. He also says in many cases, coalition forces may not know where there are noncombatants.