- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

International legal and human rights specialists said yesterday that Tuesday’s firefight that resulted in the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s sons did not violate a long-standing U.S. ban on political assassinations.

The wartime setting, the fierce resistance and the leadership roles of Uday and Qusai Hussein in the ousted Iraqi regime made the two sons legitimate targets of deadly force by coalition forces in the shootout, said Steven Ratner, a University of Texas law professor and former legal adviser at the State Department.

“Whether you are talking about the U.S. executive order [banning political assassinations] or international law, this incident — at least as it’s been reported — does not run afoul of accepted practice,” Mr. Ratner said.

U.S. military spokesmen have described an intense shootout at the complex in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, with those inside the compound firing on U.S. troops who demanded their surrender. The U.S. force had come to the Mosul site following up on a tip that Saddam’s sons had hidden there.

“Given the amount of gunfire that came from that building, and the difficulty that the forces had in getting into the element of the building where they were located, it is, I think, obvious that there was no chance of taking them alive,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing yesterday.

But Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, sharply criticized the killing of Saddam’s two sons.

“We have a law on the books that the United States should not be assassinating anybody,” Mr. Rangel said Tuesday evening on the Fox News show “Hannity and Colmes.”

A 1976 executive order — not law — signed by President Ford and later modified by Presidents Carter and Reagan made it official government policy not to engage in or encourage political assassinations. The ban was imposed as a backlash against revelations of U.S. intelligence actions targeting Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and others in the Cold War years.

But analysts said the ban does not prohibit U.S. forces from targeting legitimate enemy military and political leaders in wartime and does not prohibit the use of deadly force against figures who violently resist capture.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said his organization remains strongly in favor of the ban, even writing a letter to President Bush nine days after the September 11 attacks urging that it be kept in force.

But he said what is known of the Mosul firefight did not qualify as a targeted assassination.

“These two were obviously legitimate military targets,” Mr. Malinowski said. “If indeed they were inside the compound firing at U.S. forces and refusing a legitimate offer to surrender, the American soldiers were within their rights to use deadly force.”

Human Rights Watch is conducting its own on-the-ground survey of the conduct of both sides in the Iraq conflict, but Mr. Malinowski said the two U.S. missile strikes aimed at Saddam in March and April were legitimate actions by a combatant in wartime.

“By the same token, if a U.S. soldier had seen [Nazi Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel driving by in a jeep, it would have been justified under the laws of war to take a shot at him,” Mr. Malinowski said.

The post-September 11 war on terrorism has sparked new debate on the assassination ban, with the Bush administration openly targeting Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda members in a shadowy, international campaign even though the executive order remains in force.

The U.S. administration also has repeatedly criticized the government of Israel for “targeted killings” of suspected Palestinian militants.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected Mr. Rangel’s charge that the assassination ban had been violated.

“This was a military operation, and command-and-control targets are what we will pursue,” he said.

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