U.S. officials have begun cataloguing alleged violations of international law by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for future use at a possible Nuremberg-style war crimes trial, Bush Administration sources said Thursday.
The allegations, which officials said could also help justify any direct military action that the United States might take against Iraq, so far include using chemical weapons, waging an illegal war of aggression, taking hostages, kidnaping diplomats, violating embassies and placing captives at military installations.
The formulation of legal charges represents a new front in the Administration’s effort to isolate and intimidate Hussein, a campaign that so far has included economic quarantine, a massive military buildup and an international diplomatic offensive.
Officials hope that the threat of a war crimes tribunal will deter Hussein from taking any further action against the thousands of foreign hostages he now holds or against prisoners of war if fighting should erupt.
“Some (legal) action has to be taken, both because we have a right to bring him to justice and to deter him from further violations,” said an Administration official who asked not to be named.
The building of a legal case also appears to be part of a larger Administration effort to justify its presence in the Arabian desert and to provide the basis for a war not just to protect Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oil fields but also to eliminate Hussein and his vast arsenal from the Middle East.
The behind-the-scenes legal moves further suggest that the Administration is considering making the capture and trial of Hussein and his key lieutenants one of the possible goals of its gulf military buildup--much as the arrest of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega was one of the stated goals of last December’s invasion of Panama.
An Administration source said that any legal action against Hussein and his government would be sought under international--presumably United Nations--auspices and involve violations of international law rather than U.S. law.
Two U.S. statutes could apply, however, a State Department official said: a 1986 anti-terrorism law and a 1984 act outlawing hostage-taking.
Officials said Hussein clearly has violated the most serious precept in international law by waging a war of aggression. That charge was the foundation of the war crimes trials of Nazi leaders in Nuremberg after World War II.
Hussein also is guilty of “grave breaches” of the Geneva Convention of 1949 by taking hostages, removing them from occupied territory and placing them at military installations as shields against attack, U.S. officials said.
They further allege that the Iraqi army’s treatment of civilians and its looting in Kuwait are violations of the Geneva Convention’s international rules of warfare.
In addition, some experts contend that Hussein clearly has breached the 1973 New York Convention protecting embassies, diplomatic personnel and their dependents.
“Saddam has really put himself in a situation of dire jeopardy by using civilians,” said Abraham D. Sofaer, who, until recently, was the State Department legal adviser. “It’s a clear violation of the laws of war. To intentionally expose civilians for military purposes is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.”
The former legal adviser said that seizing hostages will not deter the United States from acting militarily. “In fact, it creates a basis for action. If he does enough of these things, it creates a bigger and better case for taking action beyond the embargo. . . . It’s ample reason for the use of force against him,” Sofaer said.
Rounding up Hussein and his senior advisers to stand trial could be problematic. Baghdad is a much larger and better-defended capital than Panama City, and the United States does not have a posse of troops within a few miles of the presidential palace.
But John Norton Moore, a former State Department international law specialist, said that merely convening a war crimes trial could have a sobering effect on Hussein and his deputies, even if they are never compelled to appear.
“They can try him in absentia. He would be given every opportunity to come and represent himself if he likes. But there’s no question that the (U.N.) Security Council has jurisdiction to hold an international war crimes tribunal as a measure to restore international peace and security,” said Moore.