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Human shields add to war worries

From Jamie McIntyre, CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent

Human shield peace activists arrive at the South Baghdad Power Plant.
Human shield peace activists arrive at the South Baghdad Power Plant.

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U.S. officials say civilians who volunteer to shield Iraqi military installations could put themselves at risk.
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(CNN) -- In 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein held hundreds of foreign nationals and dispatched them to strategic sites in Iraq and Kuwait to serve as "human shields" against military strikes.

But before the war came, Saddam let the hostages, which Baghdad termed "guests," go.

Now the Iraqi leader is taking a different tact, soliciting civilian volunteers -- including hundreds of Western anti-war protesters that have journeyed to Iraq -- to act as human shields in the event of war.

The use of Iraqi citizens and protesters could complicate any U.S. plans to deliver a knockout punch in the opening hours of conflict.

One anti-war organizer said the volunteers -- including a group of civilians from London who arrived in Baghdad last week -- are there to make world leaders think twice before bombing and causing "white Western body parts [to fly] around with the Iraqi ones."

But the move has led some in the Pentagon to question whether volunteers are still non-combatants, or whether they have crossed the line to assist the Iraqi regime.

No matter the circumstances, the Pentagon argues using human shields is a war crime, subject to prosecution.

"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," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers says.

The U.S. says Iraq has further endangered civilians by moving military equipment and supplies next to schools, mosques, hospitals, orphanages and historic sites.

Washington also says Iraq has made military targets out of otherwise civilian structures, for example, by placing antiaircraft guns on the roof of the ministry of media.

"These are not tactics of war, they are crimes of war," Rumsfeld said earlier this month. "Deploying human shields is not a military strategy, it's murder, a violation of the laws of armed conflict and a crime against humanity, and it will be treated as such."

Memories of a 1991 strike on a civilian bomb shelter are still fresh.
Memories of a 1991 strike on a civilian bomb shelter are still fresh.

Adding to concerns in Washington, the Pentagon is anxious to avoid a repeat of what happened in February 1991, when the U.S. bombed what it thought was a command bunker only to discover it was used as a bomb shelter by civilians.

The deaths of 293 mostly women and children caused a temporary pause in the bombing of Baghdad, and handed Saddam a public relations victory.

Such concerns have shaped the Pentagon's war plan, which calls for maximum damage to paralyze Iraq's military, while minimizing civilian causalities.

While this could be complicated if key targets are surrounded by civilians, the Pentagon says while it will work around any human shields, it is not guaranteeing any legitimate military target won't be hit.


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