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Belgium Nixes War-Crimes Charges Against Bush, Powell, Cheney, Sharon

Belgium's highest court dismissed war crimes complaints Wednesday against former President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, ruling the country no longer has a legal basis to charge them.

The decision was expected to improve Belgium's diplomatic relations with the United States and Israel, which hit their lowest points in decades over the complaints.

The cases were based on a Belgian universal jurisdiction law allowing for foreigners to file genocide and war crimes complaints against foreign leaders.

Under international pressure, Parliament amended the 1993 law in August to require that human rights complaints could only be filed if the victim or suspect was a Belgian citizen or long-term resident at the time of the alleged crime. Parliament also guaranteed diplomatic immunity for world leaders and other government officials visiting the country.

The changes brought Belgian law in line with the rest of Western Europe while removing a source of diplomatic friction.

The Bush administration threatened to move NATO headquarters out of Belgium over the country's use of the law to file complaints against leaders in the United States and other nations.

"Because of this ruling it will be easier to improve our relations," Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel (search) said.

With Wednesday's decision, no other cases against U.S. officials are pending. The decision cannot be appealed in Belgian courts.

The complaints alleging war crimes against Bush, Powell, and Cheney, who was U.S. defense secretary in the early 1990s, were filed on behalf of the families of seven Iraqis killed or injured during the 1991 Gulf War.

The issue centers on the Feb. 13, 1991, bombing of the al-Amiriya shelter (search) in Baghdad, which killed 403 people, including 261 women and 52 children. American aircraft attacked the shelter believing it was a command center.

Lawyers filed a complaint against Sharon alleging he was responsible for a 1982 massacre of Palestinians by a Lebanese Christian militia in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps (search) in Lebanon. At the time, Sharon was Israel's defense minister. He became prime minister in 2001.

An Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible and forced him to resign as defense minister in 1983.

"We are satisfied with the decision," Israeli embassy spokesman Laurent Reichman said of the court ruling. "Now, both Belgium and Israel are going to work hard again to have the same friendly relations we had before."