#039;Rules of engagement#039; set limits for war actions

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 25, 2003

What are those commentators talking about when they refer to &uot;rules of engagement?&uot; Is it possible to &uot;cheat&uot; at war? Does the United States obey the rules?

Such questions are complicated and can involve detailed analysis of international law and a historical understanding of half a century of foreign policy.

&uot;There's a publication called Law of Land Warfare,&uot; explains John Schmidt, a retired Marine colonel.

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&uot;The rules go back to the first world war and they have been updated since then.&uot;

Schmidt said the international rules, known as the Geneva Conventions, are grounded in international norms and have served as the basis for a handful of convictions for what are called &uot;war crimes.&uot;

The recent talk about the rules of war has been largely as a result of commentators alleging cheating on the part of Iraqi soldiers.

&uot;Some of the Iraqi soldiers donned civilian guard and lured Marine forces by waving a white flag,&uot; Schmidt said. &uot;In that sense, they had non-combatant status. If the Marines had willy nilly opened up on them, they could have been accused of killing non-combatants. Those are the ruses that are prohibited under the Geneva Convention.&uot;

By &uot;non-combatant,&uot; Schmidt is referring to legal designations that encourage soldiers to put on special uniforms and clearly designate themselves as distinct targets - presumably to separate troops from civilians.

&uot;You lose your non-combatant status when you put on a uniform and take up arms,&uot; Schmidt said. &uot;Even if you are a medical doctor, if you take up a weapon, you lose your non-combatant status.&uot;

Still, those rules are fuzzy and not always endorsed by all nations. Schmidt said Saddam Hussein is cheating and putting the lives of civilians at risk.

&uot;Hospitals should have a red cross or red crescent to designate them and show that they are not to be targets. Those are protected entities, but Saddam has chosen to put weapons in those buildings. If there is a target there and it's threatening your forces, you could indeed take that target out.&uot;

The battlefield is much more chaotic than any courtroom definition of &uot;crimes,&uot; Schmidt said.

&uot;American Marines were able to capture a hospital that was filled with soldiers, ammunition and even a tank,&uot; he said.

But Americans don't always play by the rules of the Geneva Convention either. Schmidt pointed out an incident at a Vietnamese village named My Lai as an example of U.S. troops targeting civilians under the instruction of Lt. William Calley, who was later prosecuted in American courts.

&uot;My Lai was an example where the U.S. Army slaughtered innocent non-combatants,&uot; he said. &uot;The villagers had no weapons and no guns.&uot;

Allegations of violations of the Geneva Conventions are being exchanged by both sides n the Iraqi war.

The United States claims that Iraqi treatment of American prisoners of war is a violation of international law. An article in the British newspaper Tuesday admits the Iraqi violation of American prisoners' rights, but says the United States has also abused the Afghan prisoners kept at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

&uot;There cannot be one rule for America and another for the rest of the world,&uot; the piece opined, referring to enemy combatants that the U.S. government has allowed to be shown on television and in print media.

Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, said &uot;the teachings of Islam,&uot; and the Geneva Conventions would be Iraq's guidelines in treatment of American and British prisoners.

&uot;We are committed, first of all, to the teachings of Islam, and second, we are committed to the conventions of Geneva in dealing with the prisoners of war.&uot;

Article 13 of the Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949, states that POWs shall not be made the object of &uot;public curiosity.&uot;

The Red Cross has asked U.S. and British authorities for access to 3,000 Iraqis being held by coalition forces.

&uot;I do not know the result of our approaches in Baghdad as far as access to American prisoners of war are concerned,&uot; said Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Red Cross. &uot;But I do note - and it's very important - that Iraq's defense minister has confirmed that for Iraq, the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention are applicable.&uot;

Also on Monday, Syrian leaders condemned an American airstrike which blew up a bus, killing five passengers.

&uot;This act represents a breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention on protecting civilians during war,&uot; a government release said. &uot;The Syrian Arab Republic condemns this act and reserves the right to demand compensation in line with international law.&uot;

American officials called the bombing an accident, after the bus drove into a 'target zone' after coalition aircraft released ordinance.

Stephen Stetson can be reached at stephen.stetson @troymessenger.com.