CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar – U.S. Central Command said Monday that captured Iraqis are being treated as prisoners of war but said there would be accountability for any terrorist acts that would violate the rules of war.
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks cited several incidents in which loyalists of Saddam Hussein shot and killed Iraqi civilians while using them as human shields in facing U.S. forces.
He said no decision had been made to designate any of the more than 4,000 Iraqi prisoners as unlawful combatants and send them to a prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where followers of Usama bin Laden were incarcerated after the Afghanistan war.
"Right now at this point, we are treating all that we have taken into our custody as prisoners of war," Brooks said, noting the Bush administration would decide whether to treat them as terrorists.
Brooks said Iraqi paramilitary forces that acted as death squads and carried out "brutal acts" against civilians would be held accountable under the Geneva Conventions, which govern the actions of combatants.
Brooks was responding to reports in The Washington Post that U.S. forces have begun rounding up Iraqis in civilian clothes who are suspected of involvement with paramilitary squads and may ship them to the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo.
The report said military lawyers were drafting criteria designed to guide front-line troops on how such Iraqis could be taken into custody.
The detainees would be treated like POWs but without an official status until a hearing is held, which would determine whether they can be released, held as POWs or declared illegal combatants, the report said.
"There will be accountability for the violations of the Geneva Conventions," Brooks said, adding he did not believe any U.S. portrayal of the acts of Iraqi loyalists would affect the treatment of Americans held by Iraq.
"We can't account for what this regime will do with our POWs," he said.
Asked about the impact of an Iraqi suicide attack on U.S. forces Saturday that resulted in the death of four soldiers, Brooks said it would not stop the U.S. advance on Baghdad.
"It's not a very effective military tactic at all," he said. "It will not stop us. It will not stop us."
He said U.S. forces "certainly know that in a regime that is linked to terrorism that terroristic practices might be exhibited."
Asked about reports that 4,000 volunteers had entered Iraq from other Arab countries and vowed to carry out suicide attacks, Brooks said U.S. special forces were operating in the western part of the country to prevent infiltration.
On the battlefield, Brooks confirmed U.S. troops had engaged the Republican Guard units south of Baghdad and also said the British forces had increased control of the southern city of Basra.
He said the local population in Basra was providing information on the Saddam loyalists in the city, but there were still areas "under the boot of the Iraqi regime."
"We wouldn't say that Basra is completely under coalition control," he said.
One target of U.S. air attacks was local Iraqi television, which has broadcast interviews with top officials in Saddam's government. Brooks said that the transmission facilities had been damaged and the civilian population "did not see much of the regime at this time."