Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - An expert on the role of religion in free societies believes the underlying moral principles of both U.S. and Iraq military forces are being played out on the battlefield. Predominant among those principles, he said, is the respect for life and the people of Iraq held by U.S. troops.
Joe Loconte, the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation, told CNSNews.com Friday that Americans should not be shocked by the behavior of the Iraqi military.
"It's the same military that runs the country like a police state - arbitrary arrests and tortures, rape as a state policy, executions without due process - that's the record of this regime," he said. "So, no big surprise that the military is behaving that way. The violations of the Geneva Convention and probably just about any international norm of human decency are what we're seeing happen with the Iraqi army."
On Friday, Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, warned U.S. and British forces who had seized Saddam International Airport in Baghdad that Iraq was readying to "carry out something that is untraditional against them - not conventional."
While he denied Iraq would use nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, Al-Sahaf said Iraq would "conduct a kind of martyrdom operations." The attacks, he added, would be carried out not by Iraqi military but by "mercenaries."
Al-Sahaf also admitted that Iraqi troops caused the blackout in Baghdad Thursday night that left thousands without electricity to refrigerate food or running water.
"Working in the dark," he explained, "is useful for mercenaries."
Loconte referenced a number of other incidents in the preceding 48 hours that he believes graphically expose the differences in the moral underpinnings of the involved governments and their military forces:
Three U.S. Marines were reportedly killed when they left the safety of a barricaded checkpoint to aid a pregnant woman screaming for help. The woman was a suicide bomber who killed herself, her unborn child and the troops rushing to help them.
"They learn how to fight in a way that minimizes death to civilians, that protects the innocent," Loconte said of the U.S. military.
Coalition leadership sources initially speculated that the woman was probably being coerced by the Iraqi military, most likely by holding her family hostage and threatening them with torture or execution if she did not carry out the attack. Had the roles been reversed and the woman been an American asking Iraqi troops for help, Loconte predicted the outcome would have been much different.
"They would have shot her," he said, adding that it is "very discouraging" that "the great lengths that our military are going to right now to protect innocent life" are not more widely recognized.
Another example Loconte referenced is the response of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division to an angry crowd of Iraqi Shi'ites that prevented them from approaching the Ali Mosque, a sacred Shi'ite site in the town of Najaf Thursday.
A rumor circulated through the crowd that the soldiers were planning to occupy the shrine and prevent local residents from praying there. Some in the crowd began yelling angrily and throwing rocks at the troops until Muslim clerics intervened. When the commander of the unit learned of their fears, he ordered his men to retreat until the clerics could convince the crowd that the troops were there to clear the mosque of Iraqi military and open it to the people.
"The contrast could not be more stark between the Iraqis - who have desecrated their own mosques and holy sites...to attack U.S. troops - and then you have this incredible restraint, this thoughtfulness and respect and restraint of the American troops for the Iraqi people," Loconte said.
The choice to retreat and avoid bloodshed, he argued, was probably not the most natural response.
"When you're under the gun like that, under pressure, there has to be an impulse to want to open fire," Loconte added. "Yet, the American troops seem to be so well trained here that they restrained that impulse, again going to extra lengths to prevent the unnecessary injury and death to civilians."
At a Pentagon briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke accused Iraqi troops of using hospitals, mosques and schools "as places of war." She added that coalition troops have found mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank mines in classrooms. Those claims have been substantiated by embedded reporters traveling with coalition forces.
"They clearly would do just about anything to hold onto power," Clarke said of the Iraqi regime, adding that Saddam Hussein "is fooling nobody, and the end is inevitable."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, questioned the motives of the Bush administration in a speech on the House floor Thursday night.
"I believe this war is not about defending the United States from the threat of Iraq, this war is not about the U.S. trying to save or liberate the Iraqi people, this war is not about an Iraqi nuclear threat," he said. "Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction that have been able to be detected by the U.N."
Kucinich introduced an amendment to lower the emergency appropriation of funds to the military to just the amount needed to immediately but safely remove all U.S. forces from Iraq.
"This war must end now. It was unjust when it started two weeks ago, and it is still unjust today," he argued. "The U.S. should get out now and try to save the lives of our troops and of innocent Iraqi citizens."
Late reports Friday indicated that U.S. Marines had found cyanide and mustard agents in high concentrations in the Euphrates River near Nassiriya. Marine Corps sources were quoted as saying the agents were found during routine tests conducted to ensure the safety of drinking water.
Chemical experts from the U.S. have also been tasked with examining the contents of thousands of vials of unidentified liquids and powders found at two sites near Baghdad. Military officials stressed that they did not yet know what was in those vials, but they were found along with manuals on the creation and use of biological and chemical weapons.
Loconte believes those discoveries will make it harder for critics such as Kucinich to claim that President Bush was wrong to order the military assault against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
"[Bush is] right. He's right about this regime's ambitions, and it was right to try to stop [Hussein] now, not later when he's nuclear armed," Loconte argued. "When an entire regime becomes possessed by evil, one of the moral obligations of people of conscience is to resist and to confront and to overcome that evil to prevent much greater devastation to innocent life.
"That's a moral obligation," he concluded, "not an option."
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