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Rumsfeld: Human shields' use is war crime | (UPI) -- With around 30 Western volunteer "human shields" now in Baghdad and more on their way, Pentagon officials Wednesday warned that any Iraqi military personnel who put those civilians at risk would be violating international law and could face war crimes charges.

"International law draws a clear distinction between civilians and combatants. The principle that civilians must be protected lies at the heart of international law of armed conflict. It is the distinction between combatants and innocent civilians that terrorism, and practices like the use of human shields, so directly assaults," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a Pentagon press briefing.

"If death or serious injury to a noncombatant resulted from these efforts, the individuals responsible for deploying any innocent civilians as human shields could be guilty of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions," added Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers.

Saddam Hussein has a history of using human shields -- albeit involuntary ones -- to discourage attacks.

Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, he detained hundreds of Westerners around Iraq -- an infraction that may be the focus of a lawsuit brought by a member of Parliament on behalf of a group of British citizens. Roughly 80 members of Parliament are trying to indict Saddam; his Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz; his cousin and governor of occupied Kuwait, Ali Hassan al Majid, better known as "Chemical Ali" for orchestrating the gassing of the Kurds; and Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, the British Observer reported in December.

The practice made for dramatic television when Saddam in civilian clothes had a captive group of British citizens in his office for a televised show. At one point, he put a heavy hand on the head of a clearly terrified young boy.

According to Rumsfeld, that practice continues.

"He deliberately constructs mosques near military facilities, uses schools, hospitals, orphanages and cultural treasures to shield military forces, thereby exposing helpless men, women and children to danger. These are not tactics of war, they are crimes of war," Rumsfeld said.

This time, however, there is a twist: Many of the human shields are anti-war activists from the United States, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Australia and the Middle East who have volunteered to travel to Baghdad in hopes of averting a conflict. Around two dozen arrived in Iraq on Sunday. Their satellite phones were immediately confiscated by Iraqi officials.

Winnie Mandela, the ex-wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, suggested Wednesday that she would go to Iraq to be a shield. A Methodist pastor from New Jersey departed for the region this week.

There is even a Web site devoted to the human shield recruitment: The organization does not specifically advocate the physical protection of likely targets, however.

"Human Shield Action Iraq does not actively encourage any members of the convoy to 'camp out' at any civilian or military installations," the group's literature states.

The presence of human shields automatically complicates the U.S. military's mission, as the military says it goes to some lengths to "deconflict" military targets -- that is, to cause little "collateral" damage to the surroundings and nearby civilians. According to the Pentagon, it was this desire that in part spawned the current generation of precision-guided munitions, which allows the minimum amount of explosives to be put directly on a target. It was a capability that famously debuted in the Gulf War, as satellite-guided missiles cruised through windows and hallways for their designated mark.

Still, avoiding civilian casualties in war is an imperfect art. One of the most famous debacles of the Kosovo War was the result of what NATO and U.S. officials said was a human shield set-up. In the spring of 1999, U.S. aircraft bombed a convoy of vehicles it believed was military. Subsequent investigations by reporters suggested it was a line of civilian refugees. NATO continued to insist the convoy was infiltrated with Serb military forces and equipment and that it had been a set-up. In early April, Serb forces in Orahavic reportedly forced as many as 700 ethnic Albanian men to stand in front of tanks in the rain for two days as the Serbs exchanged fire with Kosovo Liberation Army forces.

The practice of using human shields is not limited to Europe and the Middle East. From 1994 to 1997, remnants of the armed forces of Rwanda and militias still loyal to the defeated President Juvenal Habyarimana staged and launched attacks in Rwanda from refugee camps in Zaire, using refugees as shields from counterattacks.

Article 51 of the 1977 amendment the 1949 Geneva Conventions specifically prohibits human shields.

"The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objects from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations," it states.

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