WASHINGTON – Any Iraqis involved in attempts to use civilians as human shields during U.S. military operations would be punished as war criminals, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
Rumsfeld said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been willing to use human shields in the past and suggested he could try the tactic again if President Bush decides to use military force to disarm Iraq. Bush himself cited the human shield scenario last week.
At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld asserted that Saddam deliberately builds mosques near military sites and "uses schools, hospitals, orphanages and cultural treasures to shield military forces."
"Deploying human shields is not a military strategy. It's murder, a violation of the laws of armed conflict and a crime against humanity, and it will be treated as such," Rumsfeld said. "Those who follow his orders to use human shields will pay a severe price for their actions."
Rumsfeld's statements were the latest from the Pentagon meant to raise the possibility that if there is war, Saddam would try to harm Iraq and its people and blame the result on the United States. Defense Department officials have accused Saddam of preparing to destroy Iraqi oil wells and dams and of locating biological weapons labs in residential areas.
Pentagon officials on Wednesday postponed a scheduled briefing for reporters that was to provide more evidence that Saddam is planning to put civilians in danger to blunt any U.S. attacks. The Pentagon recently released satellite photos showing holes it said were fortifications to protect military equipment near a school in a residential area of a Baghdad suburb.
Pentagon officials are concerned that one of the few effective tactics available for countries like Iraq is to spotlight civilian deaths and blame America for them.
Meanwhile, busloads of European and American anti-war protesters who call themselves human shields arrived in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad this week in a caravan from London. A separate group of European and American activists wrapped their arms around posts on a Baghdad bridge last week to show their willingness to act as human shields.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon news conference that using volunteer human shields still would be a war crime.
"If death or serious injury to a noncombatant resulted from these efforts, the individuals responsible for deploying any innocent civilians as human shields could be guilty of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions," Myers said.
One of the most debated incidents of the 1991 Persian Gulf War involved U.S. charges that Iraq was using civilians to shield a military site.
On Feb. 13, 1991, coalition forces bombed what they believed was an Iraqi command bunker in Baghdad, killing civilians on the top floors. The White House says the bunker was being used by Iraqi military personnel, who were stationed on the floors below the civilians. Iraq said the bunker was a civilian air raid shelter that had been deliberately bombed.