America's own unlawful combatants?

As the Bush administration deals with the fallout from the recent killings of civilians by private security firms in Iraq, some officials are asking whether the contractors could be considered “unlawful combatants” under international agreements.

Unresolved questions are likely to touch off new criticism of Bush's conduct of the unpopular Iraq war, especially given the broad definition of unlawful combatants the president has used in justifying his detention policies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The designation of lawful and unlawful combatants is set out in the Geneva Convention. Lawful combatants are nonmilitary personnel who operate under their military's chain of command. Others may carry weapons in a war zone but may not use offensive force. Under the international agreements, they may only defend themselves.

The issues surrounding the private security contractors are being examined by lawyers at the departments of State, Defense and Justice. Disagreements about the contractors' status exist between agencies and within the Pentagon itself.

[Excerpt of an article by Julian Barnes, LA Times]

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