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Reuters AlertNet - US lawyers warn Bush, Rumsfeld, on war crimes

By Grant McCool

NEW YORK, Jan 24 (Reuters) - A group of U.S. law professors opposed to a possible war on Iraq warned U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday that he and senior government officials could be prosecuted for war crimes if military tactics violated international humanitarian law.

"Our primary concern ... is the large number of civilian casualties that may result should U.S. and coalition forces fail to comply with international humanitarian law in using force against Iraq," the group, led by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a letter to Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The group cited the particular need for U.S. and coalition forces to abide by humanitarian law requiring warring parties to distinguish between military and civilian areas, use only the level of force that is militarily necessary and to use weaponry that is proportionate to what is being targeted.

The letter, which had more than 100 signatories, said the rules had been broken in other recent wars.

It said air strikes on populated cities, carpet bombing and the use of fuel-air explosives were examples of inappropriate military action taken during the 1991 Gulf war, the 1999 Kosovo campaign and the 2001 Afghan conflict that led to civilian casualties and might be used again in Iraq.

The letter to Bush and Rumsfeld coincided with similar notes sent this week to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien by lawyers in those countries.

Ironically, Bush on Wednesday advised Iraqi officers and soldiers to disobey any orders to use weapons of mass destruction in the event of a conflict. "If you choose to do so, when Iraq is liberated, you will be treated, tried and persecuted as a warCriminal," he said.

On Sunday, Rumsfeld said he would favor granting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and senior Iraqi leaders immunity from possible war crimes prosecution if it would clear the way for their exile and avoid a war.

INTERNATIONAL Criminal COURT

Government officials in Britain and Canada could theoretically be investigated by the new International Criminal Court in The Hague if it was determined that international laws had been broken in war. The United States has refused to cooperate with the court and has withdrawn its signature from the treaty establishing it.

The letter to Blair, dated Jan. 22, from Public Interest Lawyers said that if Britain's actions in Iraq were deemed possible war crimes, "we, and others, will take steps to ensure that you, and other leaders of the U.K. government are held accountable."

The Canadian group, Lawyers Against the war, said in its letter dated Jan. 20, that it was putting Chretien's government on notice that without explicit U.N. Security Council approval for a war on Iraq, "we will pursue all responsible government officials on charges of murder and crimes against humanity in both the Canadian and the international Criminal courts."

One of the leading signatories to the letter to Bush said although Washington was not a party to the ICC, U.S. officials could still be prosecuted under the Geneva Convention.

"war crimes under that convention can be prosecuted wherever the perpetrators are found," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

He said the situation could be likened to the attempt by a Spanish magistrate to prosecute former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1996 for human rights violations during his rule.