Contrary to Policy, US Forces Occupy Schools and Church ; Experts Say the Move, Which Began Four Days Ago in a Northern Iraqi Town, May Violate International Law

Article excerpt

US Special Forces cruised through the streets of a town in northern Iraq this week in heavily armored Humvees, loaded with weapons - an about-face from their usually low-profile maneuvers.

The soldiers, dressed in heavy woolen caps and goggles obscuring their faces, rode on platforms at the back of the vehicles. They manned mounted guns and saluted to curious Kurds as they negotiated the dusty roads.

But these troops were heading for a residential district, not the battlefield.

This reporter witnessed the Humvees stopping outside a girls' school - currently closed because of the war - heaving their backpacks over a cement fence into the playground. On the roof of a Christian church next door, US troops were setting up communications equipment.

The entrance to a nearby boys' school had been reinforced with sandbags and armed Kurdish militiamen, pesh merga, were on guard outside. A boys' school was also seen being occupied by US forces, and local residents say three schools - all closed - now house US troops.

The US military, for its part, says it has no information on this particular operation. "But it certainly is our policy to not establish military headquarters or other operations in protected areas under the Geneva Convention," says Lt. Col. Gary Keck, a spokesman for the Department of Defense in Washington.

An armed Kurdish militiamen working with the soldiers was dispatched to order this correspondent to leave - even though the activity was on a public street.

Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at Tuft's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says the US actions may violate The Hague Convention, which compels combatants to take "...all necessary steps to spare as far as possible buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, charitable purposes, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected."

"It's a pretty stupid thing to do," says Mr. Rubin. "It does make the thing a target for enemy guerrillas and enemy operations."

This operation comes as coalition leaders accuse President Saddam Hussein of violating the rules of war by hiding military personnel and weapons in civilian facilities. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Mr. Hussein of using "schools, hospitals, orphanages, and cultural treasures to shield military forces thereby exposing helpless men, women and children to danger."

The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers has said, "It is a violation of the law of armed conflict to use noncombatants as a means of shielding potential military targets - even those people who may volunteer for this purpose. …


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