WASHINGTON - U.S. military officials said yesterday that they will not shun Iraqi targets even if Saddam Hussein uses so-called "human shield" tactics that might endanger civilians.
"We do everything in our power to keep our targeting as precision-based as it can be, always knowing that ... there is room for problems that could take place," said Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, deputy commander of the U.S. military's Central Command. "But we're very precise in our targeting, and we're certainly not influenced by any targeting that [Hussein] would make against his own people."
Briefing reporters at the U.S. military's Qatar-based headquarters, Abizaid said he has seen reports that Hussein's forces have placed explosives near buildings in "inhabited areas." He also said "there are indications that some of the irregular forces are purposely fighting in positions that are occupied by civilians."
Both tactics could be used by Hussein in an attempt to dissuade American military planners from targeting those areas.
MSNBC reported yesterday that aerial intelligence photographs of Baghdad in recent days have showed the words "human shields" written on several buildings in the city. But it is unclear whether civilians are actually in the buildings, and U.S. military officials said the words have no effect on their bombing strategy.
A senior Pentagon official, briefing reporters in Washington recently, said that during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and in the decade since, Hussein has parked military aircraft and vehicles near mosques and archaeological sites that are considered cultural treasures.
The Iraqi leader also put ammunition in bunkers next to schools, the official said.
The tactic was apparently intended to keep the U.S. military from targeting the sites for fear they would inflict civilian casualties or destroy historic or religious structures
Michael Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, a private think tank, said the wives and children of high-ranking Iraqi officials were housed in military targets during the 1991 war. Allied forces did not know that the families were inside the targets before striking them, Vickers said, but Iraqi leaders used the deaths to build sympathy for their cause.
Robert Goldman, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said U.S. forces often avoided hitting military targets near mosques in 1991 because doing so would damage political support from Arab nations. Goldman predicted that the United States will be even more sensitive to those concerns this time because the Bush administration has less support from those nations.
But Goldman said, "If we find out that Hussein is hiding in a bunker under a school, you can bet your sweet life that the military will elect to attack when the kids aren't there if it is at all possible."
Goldman is the co-author of the 1991 book, Needless Deaths in the Gulf War.
"But there may be circumstances where the military target is so important, so strategic, that unfortunately those civilians may become collateral damage," he said.
Goldman said putting civilians in harm's way is a violation of the customary laws of war. He does not believe that forces would break those laws by killing human shields in the pursuit of military targets.
Some people who oppose the war and live in countries outside Iraq have volunteered in recent months to go to Iraq and serve as human shields. Many left Iraq after officials there told them to guard targets more sensitive than the food shelters or schools that they wanted to protect, according to published reports.