- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday accused Iraqi forces of executing two British prisoners of war, charges that brought condemnation of Iraq from governments and human rights groups.

Mr. Blair's remarks echoed similar charges a day earlier by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the Pentagon's second-ranking general, that American soldiers had been executed after surrendering to their Iraqi captors.

"If anyone needed any further evidence of the depravity of Saddam [Hussein]'s regime, this atrocity proves it," said Mr. Blair, speaking at a news conference with President Bush at Camp David in Thurmont, Md.

"Indeed, it is beyond the comprehension of anyone with an ounce of humanity in their souls," he said.

Mr. Blair went on to say that "to the families, it is an act of cruelty beyond comprehension."

Asked how he knew the men had been executed, Mr. Blair replied, "because of the circumstances we know."

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network has been airing pictures of two dead British soldiers members of the fabled Desert Rats who disappeared Sunday.

Earlier this week, Iraqi state television broadcast video of five U.S. soldiers captured in an ambush near the city of Nasiriyah, as well as footage of the bloodied bodies of as many as eight U.S. soldiers apparently killed in the same firefight. Al Jazeera aired pictures and video of the dead American soldiers, some with bullet holes in their heads.

Mr. Blair, in his brief Camp David remarks, did not disclose any evidence to back the assertion that British troops had been executed. Several broadcast networks described the men as having been killed "execution-style."

Pentagon officials also cited uncorroborated reports that the U.S. soldiers were alive when captured.

Upon hearing that pictures of the dead American troops were being aired on Al Jazeera, Mr. Bush reacted angrily, saying those who perpetrated the crime would be found and held accountable.

Iraqis captured by coalition forces are fed and given medical treatment. Some are flown to a military hospital ship to receive treatment, side by side with U.S. wounded. The military has a team of lawyers in the field to make sure the prisoners are treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

Iraqi officials have said they intend to abide by the Geneva protocols, which dictate that prisoners of war are to be treated humanely. Two U.S. helicopter pilots, shot down Monday, appeared unhurt when shown on Iraqi television.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, in an interview with Abu Dhabi television, flatly denied the U.S. and British charges.

"We haven't executed anyone," he said. "They are either killed in the battlefield, and most of them are killed because they are cowards, and the rest are captured."

The Iraqi official said Mr. Blair had resorted to "psychological warfare" because of the bad publicity in Britain after the release of pictures showing the burned corpses of British soldiers.

American Muslims said the possibility of POWs being executed was "disgusting."

"In Islam, prisoners of war are entrusted into the hands of the victor. Their safety, their honor and their security is their responsibility," said Sayyid M. Sayeed, director of the Islamic Society of North America.

"We want people to understand that these inhumane acts have nothing to do with Islam. They are Americans. They are part of us. We express our condolences to their parents."

Human rights groups, which have condemned the television broadcasts of captured American troops, said they could not independently verify assertions of prisoner executions but that the charge was a serious one.

"News reports suggest that the Iraqis may have killed troops who had either been taken as prisoners of war or who were attempting to surrender," said Elisa Massimino, director of the Washington office of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "Such killings would constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions."

She noted that Saddam's regime has a history of violations of international law.

Despite official promises to the contrary, Iraqi Interior Minister Mahmoud Diab Ahmed has told reporters in Baghdad that captured U.S. and British fighters would be treated as "mercenaries, hirelings and as war criminals."

Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for the Washington office of Amnesty International, said the "fog of war" has so far prevented the International Committee of the Red Cross and private human rights groups from investigating charges by both sides of war crimes.

"We haven't seen anything yet to verify charges of executions, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen," Mr. Hodgett said. "Obviously, it's a very serious charge."

Bernard Etzinger, a spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, said, "We are aware of the alleged executions. If proven to be true, we would unreservedly condemn the act.

"The action could only be characterized as a clear violation of the Geneva Convention and should be prosecuted when the time comes with the full force of the law."

Calls to the French and German embassies seeking official government comment last night were not returned.

The House yesterday unanimously passed a resolution demanding that Iraq abide by international laws regarding prisoners of war.

Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican and a fighter pilot in Vietnam who spent seven years in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" as a POW, said the confused and anxious state of the American prisoners displayed in the Iraqi television pictures was a clear sign they had been mistreated. He said he believed that their Iraqi captors had committed war crimes.

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