What Are the Rules of Engagement?

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U.S. leaders have accused Iraqis of violating the rules of war by questioning POWs on television and pretending to surrender, only to open fire on coalition troops.

They based their complaints on a body of international law that governs how wars are supposed to be fought. Here's a look at how those rules play out in the current fighting, drawn from interviews with retired Brig. Gen. John C. Reppert at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Steven R. Ratner, a law professor at University of Texas and co-author of Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law.


Q: What are the rules of war?

A: A series of international agreements over the past century or so have laid out how military commanders, soldiers and civilians must act during conflicts. Most prominent are the Geneva Conventions -- a series of rules that were agreed to in 1949 after World War II. Additional rules, or protocols, were added in 1977. Other agreements prohibit using chemical weapons and restrain the use of nuclear weapons.

Q: U.S. officials have complained that Iraqis questioned American prisoners of war on television. Does that break the rules?

A: The conventions devote a great deal of attention to handling prisoners of war, and specifically prohibit "humiliating or degrading treatment," and portraying them as objects of "public curiosity." The TV interviews clearly violate that, Reppert said.

Q: How is that different from video of Iraqi POWs captured and shown by American broadcasters and others?

A: Some would argue that any publicized images of POWs would break the rules, but the United States and many international lawyers would say that news pictures of Iraqi troops surrendering or kept behind barbed wire is not a violation, Ratner said. Such pictures merely show what's happening and don't go beyond that, Reppert said.

Q: What about the prisoners from the Afghanistan war being kept at a U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? How do they fit in?

A: The United States has argued those prisoners are not soldiers of any country but members of Al Qaeda, a criminal organization, and so not protected by the Geneva Conventions. Critics say that soldiers of the Taliban, however, were part of a nation's military and should have come under the rules' protections.

Q: Did Iraqi soldiers break the rules when they allegedly raised white flags to surrender and then opened fire on coalition troops?

A: That would be a violation of the prohibition against "perfidy," which includes "the feigning of an intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of a surrender." Though the United States did not ratify the 1977 protocol that includes perfidy, it has been accepted in U.S. military training and practice, Ratner said.

Q: Is the coalition's bombing of Baghdad, and subsequent civilian casualties, a violation of the rules?

A: The rules don't prohibit massive use of force, but they do bar targeting civilians or indiscriminate attacks that would likely result in civilian casualties. Mistakes and misfires are allowed and expected, Reppert said. With the rules in mind, the U.S. military consults with lawyers when it chooses its targets, Ratner said.

Q: Some reports from the field allege that Iraqis used civilians as human shields while they attacked coalition forces. Is that fair?

A: No. It breaks the rules protecting civilians caught in a combat zone.

Q: Is there any punishment for breaking the rules?

A: International courts allow for the prosecution of soldiers, commanders and leaders who violate the conventions. Nazi leaders were prosecuted for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Currently, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic faces 66 counts of war crimes for atrocities allegedly committed during a decade of Balkan wars.