Published on Monday, July 7, 2003 by the Miami Herald
Are We Committing War Crimes in Iraq?
by Dennis Jett
The Bush administration is doing some serious diplomatic arm-twisting to ensure that Americans do not fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Washington is threatening to cut off aid to dozens of our allies, including countries that supported our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, if they don't go along with an exemption for Americans.
The administration argues that American troops must be protected from politically motivated prosecutions by the court, which came into being a year ago.
Another reason may be that the highest officials in Washington don't want to worry about being tried themselves. Take Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He might have to be concerned about an incident on June 18 where U.S. forces struck two elements of a convoy in western Iraq. Using ground forces, helicopters and an AC-130 gunship, the Americans destroyed several vehicles near a Syrian border post. They then proceeded into Syria, wounded five border guards and took them back to Iraq. (They were held for several days before being turned over to their government.)
Half an hour later, the Americans attacked an Iraqi village several miles away where the convoy had stopped earlier in the evening. Several houses were destroyed and a number of villagers injured. Two were killed -- Hakima Khalil and her one-year-old daughter Maha. The residents of the village could not understand why they had become targets as they claimed the convoy was just a group of livestock smugglers.
The Pentagon did not treat this story like the rescue of Private Lynch, where videotape and other information were released immediately. In fact, the event went unreported for five days until a British newspaper broke the story. Few details have been added to the story since then, however, and American forces cordoned off the village.
Asked about the incident at press conferences on June 24 and again on June 30, Rumsfeld and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Myers, had little to offer. While asserting that the attack was based on ''good intelligence about potential high-value targets,'' Myers still could not say who was involved or whether anyone had escaped across the border.
For his part, Rumsfeld declared: ``We had good intelligence that there were people moving, during their curfew, close to the border in a convoy of SUVs, and our forces went in and stopped them.''
While Rumsfeld emphasized, ''there were perfectly logical rules of engagement that dealt with the situation,'' he refused to go any further saying that it was Pentagon policy not to comment on them. He also would not commit to producing a formal report on what happened, but instead said, ''Everyone will know that which is available to be known'' when ``the dust settles.''
If the dust ever does settle, the details of the engagement might make Rumsfeld a candidate for the international court. If the convoy was attacked without warning, someone might point out that ''shoot on sight'' orders are a war crime.
Whether or not Rumsfeld believes curfew violations are capital offenses, there is no facile explanation for why the village was attacked. Was it to demonstrate that those who host ''potential high-value targets'' make themselves targets? Collective punishment is also a war crime. An occupying power, like the United States in Iraq, is responsible for respecting the fundamental human rights of the population under its control. The arbitrary taking of a life is against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is still a party.
If there is an argument that ''good intelligence'' never results in arbitrary acts, General Myers didn't help it much. In the press conference he explained: ``Intelligence doesn't necessarily mean something is true. It's just -- it's just intelligence. You know, it's your best estimate of the situation. It doesn't mean it's a fact."
When asked about the attack, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said it ``should be seen in keeping with the ongoing military effort in Iraq to bring justice to people who we believe are associated with the regime or leaders of the regime.''
The family of Hakima and Maha Khalil probably are as enthusiastic about justice American-style as the Bush administration is about the international kind.
Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador, is dean of the University of Florida's International Center.
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