Congress to Investigate War Crimes in Iraq

The U.S. Congress is already taking steps to ensure that if Iraqi treatment of American prisoners of war has violated international law, those responsible will be punished.

The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing Friday to investigate whether Iraq's treatment of POWs in the war has violated international law. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are planning a similar hearing, according to aides.

"This will be a way for Congress to weigh in and bring to life for the public what is going on over there," said Harold Stavenas, a staffer with the House committee.

"Clearly, it's been absolutely outrageous how the Americans have been treated. We are very concerned," Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a Marine Corps veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, told this week.

As of Thursday, seven American POWs were being held in Iraq. Bodies of dead American soldiers found in the desert, as well as images of others that were broadcast on Arab television, have led U.S. officials to believe that the Iraqis have executed captured American soldiers.

Sixteen U.S. soldiers are missing in action. On Tuesday, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, one of 13 members of the 507th Maintenance Division ambushed and missing since the early days of the war, was rescued. She is currently recovering from her injuries at a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

As of Thursday, officials have not yet determined whether any of the eleven bodies found in and around the hospital where Lynch was discovered were missing American soldiers.

Early reports of Lynch's captivity revealed that she may have been tortured, a clear violation of international rules of war dictated by the Geneva Conventions.

Iraqi captors are also breaking the rules by not allowing the International Red Cross access to the prisoners, experts said.

And while torture and execution of POWs are clear violations of international law, the videotaped interview of five American POWs -- the same video that displayed dead American soldiers -- may have also violated the rules, said Larry Rothenberg, an international law expert with the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C.

The mere photographing or videotaping of prisoners for purposes of documentation is not a violation, he said. Parading prisoners and humiliating them for the world to see, however, does violate the rules.

"You cross a line when you are putting them on display for the purposes for humiliation – asking them why them came to Iraq and showing their terrified faces," Rothenberg said. "That is a violation of the Geneva Convention."

U.S. military officials say they are holding nearly 3,000 Iraqi soldiers in a camp, but their treatment -- according to the legal standards of war -- can't even be compared to Iraqi treatment of coalition POWs. For instance, the International Red Cross has already been given access to the Iraqi captives.

However, the issue of American POWs in Iraq has called attention back to the Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners that have been held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since the war on terror began in Afghanistan.

Critics say that the United States has not treated those captives appropriately under the Geneva Convention laws. The United States has responded that those prisoners are "enemy combatants," not prisoners of war, and therefore are not protected by international law.

In any case, said Rothenberg, the United States has treated all of its prisoners – enemy combatant or otherwise – humanely.

"They are being treated under the basic laws of humanity," he said.

Rothenberg also disputes claims – mostly from international media sources – that the war in Iraq is not legal under international law, so therefore the American POWs do not have legal rights.

"The fact that people are complaining that this isn't a legal war does not change the fact that all parties in the conflict have to abide by the rules of war," he said. "If that wasn't the case, either side would say this wasn't legal and slaughter everyone in sight."

Members of Congress not only hope to investigate what violations have been made, but also bring to light the brutality of the Iraqi regime and learn what steps they can take to hold the Iraqi regime and its military accountable for their war crimes.

"Make no mistake, those who are responsible for this brutality will either be tried as war criminals or will face the wrath of our military force," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a member of the Armed Services Committee. "Either way, they will pay."

Rothenberg said that there are a number of arenas in which crimes against POWs can be tried, including the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He said it is more likely that those responsible, if brought to justice, will be tried in a U.S. military court. And though many Americans might call for their execution – especially if it is determined that they killed American POWs – that would be unlikely.

"Most Americans I think would want that, but it would be very controversial," he said. "There would be people around the world who would say America did not have the right to do that."

In the meantime, Democratic presidential hopeful and civil rights activist Al Sharpton met with Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri at the Iraqi mission to the United Nations Thursday to ask for the safe return of the American POWs. While Sharpton has been vocally against the U.S. war in Iraq, he said Iraqis must comply with international law.

"It is our moral requirement that, while stressing for peace, we also use our access to continue to ask that [POWs] be returned safely," Sharpton said.