Given Saddam Hussein's reputation as a thug and murderer - the epithet, the Butcher of Baghdad, for example, was given him long before the Persian Gulf war - any ill-treatment of allied prisoners should perhaps not be a surprise. But that does not lessen the sense of outrage over violations of agreed-upon international rules about POWs.
Captured American airmen and other allied pilots have been paraded on television and have parroted anti-war statements. The men's condition and the manner in which the comments were delivered have made family members, former POWs and experienced observers certain that the statements were coerced.In addition, the Iraqi government has announced plans to scatter the prisoners to various sites as "shields" against air attack.
Both of these events have brought sharp condemnation from the United States and its allies. Such treatment is in violation of the Geneva Convention - the international agreement for the protection of captured military personnel. It is particularly offensive since Iraq is a signatory to that convention.
Twice in two days, American officials have made angry protests to Iraqi diplomats summoned in Washington, D.C. The International Red Cross is seeking to intervene regarding care and condition of prisoners.
Under any circumstances, war is terrible for everyone involved. But even in the midst of war, the world has long recognized that there must be limits, certain rules of behavior to avoid a descent into total savagery.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney noted, such behavior toward POWs could qualify Saddam for indictment on a charge of war crimes.
As is already clear, mistreatment of American prisoners and others is not going to intimidate the United States and its allies. And it shouldn't. In fact, the reaction among angry commanders in the war theater has been to step up the intensity of the aerial attacks.
The attempt to reap propaganda material from forcing captured airmen to make televised statement is not going to win any friends among bystanders, either. In fact, it is almost guaranteed to backfire. As President Bush said, if Saddam thinks brutal treatment of pilots is going to muster world support, "he is dead wrong."
If anything, such tactics create anger and a sense of revulsion. North Vietnam tried the same thing years ago during the Vietnam War. The world disgust and condemnation of the scene quickly put an end to such public displays. Captured U.S. airmen were still tortured, but the TV appearances were dropped.
That experience of torture and mistreatment, as much as anything else, may be what has kept the United States from restoring relations with Vietnam and healing the wounds of that old war. Some things are not easily forgotten.
Iraq ought to keep that lesson in mind. Trying to score propaganda points or humiliate the United States by mistreating captured personnel and forcing them to make public statements will only poison the atmosphere even more than war already has done.
Nothing will more quickly turn Iraq into "the enemy" in the minds of Americans than abuse of POWs in violation of international law.
For its own sake, as well as humanitarian principles accepted by civilized nations, Iraq should move quickly to end such charades and comply with the Geneva Convention.