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'Atrocity' cases test US military justice

Charges against eight marines in the Haditha case refocus attention on how the military handles the abuse and killing of civilians.

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Haditha, Hamdaniyah, and Mahmudiya – Iraqi cities where US troops are alleged to have committed wartime atrocities – may not have seared the public consciousness as deeply as did My Lai in Vietnam. But the cases, including new criminal charges filed Thursday against eight marines in connection with the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha, are sure to focus more attention on how the military handles abuse and killing of prisoners and civilians.

The serious charges brought in these cases also raise basic questions about how the US military-justice system proceeds against alleged atrocities:

What constitutes a "war crime"? What is the responsibility of officers of enlisted soldiers and marines who are found guilty? What punishments are being meted out?

Prosecution in such cases falls under the US Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Law of Armed Conflict, and the Geneva Conventions. But it is the "rules of engagement" that may be most relevant for troops going into battle.

Such rules for combat typically are set by the unit commander just before an operation begins, based on an evaluation of mission, enemy, terrain, troops, and time available, says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quaker lobby in Washington. But, he adds, rules of engagement "can be idiosyncratic."

Colonel Smith notes, too, that "soldiers always have the right of self-defense using even deadly force if they judge that they are in danger of suffering grievous wounds or death from enemy action."

In the Haditha case, those marines charged with killing civilians (including 10 women and children shot at close range) are expected to assert that they were fired on from houses near where their convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) that killed a lance corporal.

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