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April 2, 2003: Laws of War, Rules of Engagement - 2003-04-02

This is a VOA Special English Background Report.

Among nations there are laws of war. These are based on international agreements developed over many years. Among soldiers there are rules of engagement. These are the rules that govern when soldiers can shoot at the enemy. Military lawyers and commanders design rules of engagement for each conflict. The rules may change as conditions change. Rules of engagement are not made public. But the United States says its soldiers all know what they are.

On Monday, American troops killed seven Iraqi women and children in a vehicle at a military roadblock near Najaf. American military officials say the troops had fired warning shots but the driver did not stop. The shooting was under investigation. But officials said it appeared that the troops followed the rules of engagement to protect themselves.

On Saturday a bomber had killed four American soldiers at a similar roadblock not far away. Some reports said the rules of engagement for vehicle searches changed as a result. A spokesman for the United States Central Command, however, said no such change was ordered. The spokesman said troops always have the right to defend themselves. But they must make every effort to warn civilians and keep them away from danger.

News reports say the rules of engagement in Iraq include a ban on weapons fire in civilian areas or near religious buildings. Allied forces have accused Iraqi troops of placing military vehicles near schools and religious buildings to avoid attack. Some reports say coalition forces have eased the rules and may now fire at Iraqi troops even if they are near a school.

The United States and Iraq have each accused the other of violating international laws of war. Such rules include protections for prisoners under the Geneva Conventions. They also include a ban on attacks by soldiers dressed as civilians. Iraqi officials say they must use methods like this to help their country defend itself.

The laws of war ban other actions, such as false surrenders. They also ban targeting civilians as well as starting attacks that would likely result in civilian deaths and injuries.