President George W. Bush has authorized American military forces to use tear gas in Iraq, the Pentagon says, a development that some weapons experts said could set up a conflict between American and international law.
The U.S. Defense Department said that tear gas, which has been issued to American troops but not used by them, would be used only to save civilian lives and in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, ratified by the United States in 1997. Critics say any battlefield use of tear gas would violate the convention, offend crucial allies including Britain, and hand Saddam Hussein a legal basis for using chemical weapons against the United States.
"Riot-control agents, such as C.S., better known as tear gas, are non-lethal and may be used by U.S. forces only when authorized by the president and only under specific, well-defined circumstances, to protect non-combatants," a Pentagon spokesperson, Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, said in response to questions Friday. Use of the agents for defensive purposes to save lives "would be consistent with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use of riot control agents as a method of warfare," he said.
Some experts disagreed. Elisa Harris, of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, said a violation could arise if riot control agents were used against Iraqi soldiers using civilians as a screen. This battlefield use would contravene the Chemical Weapons Convention, she said, but is explicitly permitted by an Executive Order of 1975.
The Pentagon was citing the language of this Executive Order in saying Bush had authorized use of riot control agents in Iraq, she said. Harris worked on chemical weapons policy for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Riot-control agents may be used behind battlefield lines, to quell riots or control prisoners being transported, but the chemical weapons convention says riot-control agents may not be used as a "method of warfare." Signatories feared their deployment might escalate to the use of lethal chemicals and had done so in the past.
In four major uses of chemical weapons in the past — by combatants in World War I; by the Italians in Ethiopia; by the Egyptians in Yemen; and in the Iran-Iraq war — deployment was preceded by use of non-lethal agents, Harris said. The framers of the convention therefore sought to draw a clear line against use of all chemical agents on the battlefield. This is the position of signatories including Britain. The British Defense minister, Geoff Hoon, said last week that non-lethal chemical agents "would not be used by the United Kingdom in any military operation or on any battlefield."
The U.S. Senate, in a convention-ratifying resolution, wrote in a condition allowing battlefield use of riot-control agents with presidential approval.
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