The Pentagon has denounced Iraq for recruiting civilians who will serve as so-called human shields to protect sensitive sites in the event of a new war.

The denunciation comes from General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, who says Iraq announced its plans to recruit civilian human shields late last month.

Speaking at the Pentagon, General Myers calls the policy of deliberately placing civilians in harm's way a violation of international law and a war crime.

"It is illegal under the International Law of Armed Conflict to use non-combatants as a means of shielding potential targets and Iraq's action to do so would not only violate this law but be considered a war crime in any conflict," he said.

General Myers says in the event of a new war with Iraq, the United States will seek to avoid civilian casualties.

But he also says there may be cases where military necessity will require that a particular target be struck, even if civilian shields are deployed around it. He says the blame for any deaths in such a situation will lie with Baghdad.

Appearing at a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, General Myers also reveals that several hundred U.S. Army trainers have arrived in Hungary where members of the Iraqi opposition will soon begin undergoing military training.

General Myers says Iraqi volunteers are now gathering for the planned 30-day basic training session. He declines to predict how many opposition members will be trained but says the aim is to integrate them with U.S. troop units to provide language skills and local knowledge.

The disclosure comes as U.S. forces continue to flow to the Gulf region, giving President Bush the option to use force against Iraq in a bid to force it to give up its weapons of mass destruction.

But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld disputes suggestions the build-up, now approaching 150,000 troops, means war is inevitable.

General Myers agreed. "Certainly from a military perspective, there is no point of no return," he said.

In other developments, Mr. Rumsfeld confirms the United States has approached the NATO alliance for various kinds of assistance in the event of a war with Iraq. He calls the discussions very preliminary.

General Myers also confirms the United States has offered the United Nations the use of manned U2 and unmanned Predator spy planes to enhance its weapons inspections in Iraq.

The United States has already provided intelligence information to the U.N. inspectors on suspected sites where Iraq may be concealing its chemical, biological or nuclear programs.