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WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Iraqi military commanders Wednesday that using human shields against U.S. bombs would be punishable as a war crime.
The threat from the Pentagon followed intelligence reports that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has told leaders of his Baath Party that he plans to drive up civilian casualties by using human shields in any U.S. invasion.
Even the use of voluntary human shields would be a war crime, Rumsfeld said. That prospect arose as about 100 mostly European antiwar activists arrived in Baghdad to stand between a U.S.-led force and schools and other sites.
The tactic of using human shields is part of a larger strategy including putting military arsenals beneath schools, mosques, orphanages and cultural sites so that an attacker would also kill civilians, defense officials say.
It poses a dilemma for military planners who fear civilian casualties would further inflame world opinion.
"It is a practice that reveals contempt for the norms of humanity, the laws of armed conflict, and, I am advised, Islamic law, practice and belief," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon. "These are not tactics of war, they are crimes of war. ... Those who follow (Hussein's) orders to use human shields will pay a severe price for their actions."
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the price would be a war crimes tribunal. Any deaths of "even those people who may volunteer for this purpose" could amount to "grave breaches of the Geneva conventions," he said.
Nevertheless, Rumsfeld said, the Pentagon will not necessarily alter its strategy in attacking sites protected by human shields.
The warning was the administration's latest foray in an ongoing campaign to undermine Hussein's control by forcing his commanders to choose between his orders and their own welfare, said Harlan Ullman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"What the administration is doing is laying it out very clearly that Iraqi military people who participate in nasty things will be taken to court and dealt with extremely harshly," Ullman said. "It's all part of psychological warfare, which is one of the things this administration is doing well."
That job grew more complicated on Sunday, when a group of antiwar activists calling itself "Human Shields" led a caravan from London to Baghdad. A posting on the group's Web site said the protesters would encircle power stations and schools based on specific sites suggested by an Iraqi group called the "Friendship, Peace and Solidarity Organization" in Baghdad.
In Baghdad, Hussein said Wednesday that Iraq doesn't want war with the United States, but peace cannot be kept at the expense of "our independence, our dignity" and freedom.
Speaking to a visiting delegation of Russian lawmakers, the Iraqi president said that if the United States carries out an attack, Iraq will "triumph over it, God willing."
"Iraq doesn't want war," Hussein said. But he added that peace "at any cost" was unacceptable.