Pentagon Defends Use of Civilian Clothes

The Pentagon on Friday defended the use of some civilian clothes by U.S. special operations forces, a tactic used to help them blend in with the local population.

Alleging war crimes, Bush administration officials complained bitterly last week that Iraqi paramilitary forces dressed as civilians, faked surrenders and used other battlefield ruses to kill American soldiers.

Asked at a Pentagon press conference why it is OK for American commando troops to take off their uniforms, but a crime when the Iraqis did it, Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said she thought American forces wear something that distinguishes them from civilians, but deferred the question for a later answer.

The issue is a subject of disagreement among Pentagon legal advisers and policy makers. Some officials have said for some time that it is a gray area that needs to be settled as a policy, another defense official said on condition of anonymity.

Special operations forces are often allowed what the military calls "relaxed grooming standards."

In the fight against Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, for example, special forces wore long hair and beards to blend in with the local Muslim population.

Many wore only parts of their uniform - for instance camouflaged pants with a T-shirt and baseball cap or a camouflaged jacket with an Arab head wrap or scarf.

At the press conference with Clarke, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war crime is determined by what the soldier does as well as what he wears.

"I'm not a lawyer, so I might get part of this wrong, but part of it is ... what you do when you're not in uniform," he said. "If a force is going to engage in combat, it's going to fight, it must wear a uniform or some kind of uniform - law of land warfare says arm bands or some distinctive marking that allows combatants to be identified from civilians."

After the press conference, officials said U.S. special forces in Iraq "are wearing uniforms," but declined to say if they are full uniforms or modified.

The discussion came as an Army legal oficial told a House panel that Fedayeen militia members captured in Iraq would likely not be entitled to the protection of prisoner-of-war status. That would mean they could face criminal charges for attacking American soldiers.

W. Hays Parks, special assistant for law of war matters for the Army's Judge Advocate General, said that to get POW protections, fighters must meet certain criteria, such as having a formal association with a government, carrying arms openly and wearing distinctive clothing.

He said that among the examples of Iraqi violations of the Geneva convention have been the oadcast of videotapes of dead and captured U.S. soldiers, the use of white flags to fake surrenders and then attack Americans, and the dressing of forces as civilians to lure invading troops into ambushes.

Source: Pauline Jelinek,APR,Washington, 04abr03

War in Iraq

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