DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA -- The U.S. Central Command is collecting details on alleged Iraqi abuses of civilians and maltreatment of U.S. prisoners of war for use in possible war crimes trials of Iraqi leaders after the Persian Gulf War is over, according to the chief U.S. military lawyer in Saudi Arabia.
Staff lawyers are also exploring the possibility of trying Iraq's leaders for the dumping of millions of barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf on the grounds that deliberate damage to the environment could be found to be a "crime against humanity," the lawyer said.
The prospect of an international war crimes tribunal was raised anew yesterday following press reports that Iraq had moved two American POWs -- a man and a woman -- to Basra, a military command center and key port city that has been the site of heavy allied bombing. An Iraqi POW said he had recently taken the two Americans -- one of them apparently Army Spec. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, 20, the only female American POW -- to Basra, along with a group of Saudi prisoners, a Pentagon official said.
U.S. officials said they were unable to confirm the Iraqi's account, in part because Iraq has refused to comply with international law provisions requiring nations holding POWs to give details about their status to the International Red Cross. The report of the movement of Americans to Basra highlights "the total disregard by the Iraqi government to follow the Geneva convention rules," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Acting under orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Col. Raymond Ruppert, the U.S. staff judge advocate, said he has formed a "war crimes documentation team" to collect information on possible Iraqi violations of the Geneva conventions of 1949 and other international treaties.
"We are looking at reported events to try to determine if war crimes have been committed," Ruppert said in an interview. "At this point, nobody has made a decision to do anything. . . . What we're trying to do is establish a data base" that could help investigators if allied forces enter Kuwait and begin interviewing potential witnesses.
The team has opened up "about 100 files," he said, including allegations of Kuwaiti civilians being murdered by Iraqi soldiers, rapes, removal of patients and medical equipment from Kuwaiti hospitals, and abuse of U.S. airmen captured during bombing missions over Iraq. Much of the information comes from public sources, but the team also is receiving some classified details from U.S. intelligence agencies, according to sources here.
The idea of an international war crimes tribunal was suggested last August by Margaret Thatcher, then Britain's prime minister, and a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last October authorized member states to collect information on potential Iraqi breaches of international law.
But the prosecution of alleged Iraqi war crimes faces numerous legal and political hurdles, in part because there is no established international authority to hold such a trial, U.S. officials say. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said in response to questions about a war crimes trial: "I really don't think it's appropriate for me at this stage to speculate what we might or might not decide to do with respect to Iraqi war crimes. That's, after all, something that will have to be decided in consultation with our coalition partners."
Nevertheless, Ruppert confirmed that starting late last year his small office based in Riyadh was told to begin the groundwork.
Although the Hague Convention of 1907 laid out general "rules of war" -- and prohibited the attack of defenseless, nonmilitary targets -- the Geneva conventions of 1949 are the main body of international law that would govern a trial of Iraqi leaders, Ruppert said. These four pacts spell out detailed rules for the conduct of warfare and the treatment of POWs and civilians.
The pacts apply with the outset of war, and Ruppert said that Aug. 2, the date Iraq invaded Kuwait, could be considered the starting date. This would allow prosecution of crimes committed before Jan. 17, when the multinational force moved against Iraq.
Many of those allegations, such as rape and murder of Kuwaitis, involve acts not by senior commanders but by individual Iraqi soldiers who would be hard to locate, Ruppert said. But he added that under the Geneva conventions, "a commander is responsible for the conduct of his individual soldiers, if it can be shown that the commander knew about this kind of behavior and failed to take any action to stop it."
Charges against the Iraqis for mistreatment of POWs might be more clear-cut, since the relevant Geneva convention directs that such prisoners be treated "humanely," be given adequate food and medical care, be permitted to send and receive letters and not be held up to public ridicule or contempt, a provision that U.S. lawyers could argue Iraq violated when it displayed captured U.S. airmen on television.
Charges against the Iraqis over the oil slick would almost certainly break new legal ground, since no provisions of the Geneva conventions readily apply. However, Ruppert said that "under customary international law, each nation has an obligation to try to protect the environment." The deliberate despoiling "of the environment is a crime so broad in scope that it could fall into the category of a crime against humanity," he said.
As chief U.S. legal officer for the war, Ruppert stressed that his charter extends to investigating any possible war crimes by U.S. soldiers or commanders as well. The Iraqis in recent weeks have taken Western reporters to civilian areas said to have been bombed by allied warplanes, a potential violation of the Hague convention banning attacks on civilian areas. But Ruppert said he has opened no files on allied violations because "there is no evidence" the allies have targeted civilian populations.
"For all we know," he said, the damage to civilian populations shown on Iraqi television was caused by antiaircraft missiles that were fired by Iraq at U.S. bombers and landed on their own people. "That's not a war crime," he said.