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Iraqi Regime Uses People, Culture to Shield Military

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2003 – It is akin to parking B-2 bombers at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Or like rounding up civilians in Austin, Texas, and chaining them around ammunition bunkers at nearby Fort Hood.

An enemy might think twice about attacking those military targets, or reject the idea, because of concerns that a world cultural site might be destroyed or innocent civilians would die. Saddam Hussein counts on creating that hesitation and aversion -- it's how he hopes to preserve his military capability, a senior defense official said during a Feb. 26 Pentagon briefing.

Iraq is deliberately placing military equipment and personnel in civilian areas and using civilians to shield legitimate military targets are war crimes, he said. Those responsible can be prosecuted.

The Pentagon, of course, has its own jargon. Placing equipment in population centers or religious and cultural landmarks means using "deceptive sanctuaries." Civilians placed around legitimate military targets are "human shields." The overall Iraqi effort is "countertargeting."

The official said the Iraqi regime does not care about the danger to civilians or the country's religious and cultural heritage. In fact, he said, Saddam Hussein hopes that, should the coalition have to go to war, its aircraft will hit a shielded site and kill civilians or destroy a landmark. That would fuel the Iraqi anti-coalition propaganda machine, he noted.

Countertargeting as practiced by Hussein may be against the law of war, but it is effective. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. jets hit the al-Amiriya command and control bunker in Baghdad. The bunker was a legitimate military target, but the attack planner didn't know local civilians also used the bunker as air raid protection.

That more than 100 Iraqi civilians died in the strike quickly and permanently overshadowed the fact they were huddled around a major military command center. Hussein capitalized on the ensuing international furor. Coalition targeters stopped assigning targets in Baghdad for four to seven days, the senior defense official said.

In 1990, during the Operation Desert Shield coalition buildup, the Iraqi regime detained Western civilians and then used them as human shields. It also coerced its own civilians to gather around legitimate targets.

In 2003, there is a further complication. Some 200 foreigners opposed to action against Iraq have volunteered to be human shields should a war start. The senior defense official said those people, by volunteering to serve Saddam Hussein, may have crossed the line between "noncombatant" and "combatant."

If Hussein tries what he did in 1990, then the U.N. inspectors may be in danger of being taken hostage and used as human shields, the official said.

Iraq is the ancient land of Mesopotamia. It was the cradle of civilization. The area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers saw the development of cities, of a written language, of agriculture. Thousands of important multicultural, archaeological sites dot the landscape.

Hussein has taken advantage of the world's shared culture to protect his military. The official showed a 1991 photo with two MiG-21 fighter aircraft parked next to the Ziggurat of Ur. Ur is the oldest city in the world and was the home of Abraham -- a biblical figure whom both Jews and Muslims regard as their ancestor.

The ziggurat is more than 4,000 years old. Archaeologists say it was built in a manner similar to the biblical Tower of Babel. It is a world cultural treasure.

Saddam Hussein regarded it as a shield, and he was right. Coalition forces did not strike the targets at the Ziggurat of Ur.

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Related Sites:
Briefing on Human Shields in Iraq


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