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Iraq prisoners pose new test for Geneva Conventions

Both sides have taken prisoners, but the US faces burden of being viewed as global role model on POWs.

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American soldiers now being held as prisoners of war in Iraq had nothing to do with the Bush administration's decision many months ago not to grant prisoner-of-war status to Taliban fighters detained by the US in its war on terrorism. But American POWs may face a tougher time in Iraqi captivity because of it.

Military and international law experts say that administration waffling over whether the Geneva Conventions should apply to terror suspects held by the US has somewhat eroded America's moral authority to demand full Iraqi compliance with international law now that US troops are the captives.

"What everyone is learning in Iraq is what many of us said in Afghanistan: The Geneva Conventions are profoundly important to American servicemen and women," says Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "Respecting the conventions preserves our ability to complain when the rights of Americans are abused."

The issue arises as the Iraqis force American war prisoners to pose for television cameras. On Sunday, five soldiers were briefly questioned on camera, and on Monday two American Apache helicopter pilots were offered up for international display. The televised images are of apparent importance to Iraqi defense aims, putting a human and perhaps vulnerable face on what must seem to many Iraqis an all-powerful American military machine.

Ironically, such images can be a slight source of comfort to family members by offering verification that particular prisoners are at least alive.

Similar television tactics were used by Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991, including releasing images of captured pilots who had been beaten during interrogations. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iraqis forced Iranian POWs to denounce the government in Tehran.

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