The Defense Department changed the classification of seven U.S. fliers captured by Iraq from "missing in action" to "prisoner of war" yesterday, although it has not been formally informed of their detainment by Iraq as called for under the Geneva Conventions.
The seven were displayed last week on Iraqi television. Some of their faces appeared bruised and swollen. Some were displayed more than once and some gave statements that U.S. officials believe were coerced. The broadcasts were aired in the United States and elsewhere.
Under the Geneva Conventions, which outline international standards for treatment of captured enemy troops in wartime, nations holding prisoners are obligated to formally report their identities to the International Committee of the Red Cross through the use of the "capture card system," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said yesterday.
"We're not going to get those, it would appear," he said.
Under Pentagon regulations, each service also has the prerogative to unilaterally classify its missing personnel as prisoners of war if it can independently determine they are prisoners, said a
military official who tracks Vietnam War and Persian Gulf War MIA/POW issues.
"It became simply a matter of common sense" to reclassify the fliers, Williams said. "I think we just have to follow logic, and their colleagues who have served with them have seen these videotapes; their families have seen the videotapes; there's ample reason to believe that these are in fact those individuals."
Seven other U.S. servicemen remain listed as missing in action. Iraq has said it will no longer show prisoners on television.
Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, said yesterday that acknowledging that the fliers are in Iraqi hands "places a greater responsibility on the Iraqi government to keep these people alive . . . and to return them."
During the Vietnam War, the Pentagon refused to immediately reclassify some military personnel it knew were being held as prisoners because it wanted to hold Vietnam accountable to terms of the Geneva Conventions, the military official said.
Four representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross were in Baghdad when the war broke out. They were helping to repatriate Iranian POWs from the eight-year Iran-Iraq war who are still held by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. The Iraqis have not given them access to U.S. or allied POWs.
The Red Cross has visited the Iraqi POWs captured by allied forces and held in Saudi Arabia. Those prisoners also have had medical examinations, Williams said.
The U.S. servicemen now classified as POWs are: Marine Lt. Col. Clifford M. Acree, 39, of Oceanside, Calif.; Air Force Col. David W. Eberly, 43, Goldsboro, N.C.; Air Force Maj. Thomas E. Griffith Jr., 34, Goldsboro, N.C.; Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer Guy L. Hunter, 46, Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Air Force Capt. Harry M. Roberts, 30, Savannah, Ga.; Air Force Maj. Jeffrey Scott Tice, 35, Sellersville, Pa.; and Navy Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, 28, Cherry Hill, N.J.
Meanwhile, Baghdad radio said that the captured U.S. and allied fliers have been injured in air attacks staged by Operation Desert Storm on "populated and civilian targets in Iraq," the Associated Press reported from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Iraq had said earlier that the prisoners would be used as "human shields" at military and strategic sites.
In an interview with CNN's Peter Arnett, Saddam answered questions about the POWs rhetorically. Asked about the decision to place them at strategic locations, Saddam "said Iraqi students were being unfairly interned in the West, in England and maybe elsewhere, and there are restrictions, he said, on Arabs of Iraqi descent," Arnett reported.
Asked how this decision squared with his promise to treat soldiers according to the Geneva Conventions, Saddam responded, "Does the Geneva Convention allow Iraqi students to be imprisoned in the West?" Arnett said.
Saddam "expressed some annoyance with what he called hypocritical Western politicians who convinced him last year that if he let go the foreign hostages that he held that he would keep the peace," Arnett reported. "He said if we had kept these 5,000 hostages here, would Bush still have attacked Baghdad?"