Hors de Combat

By Kurt Schork 

Iraqi Army troops and Kurdish peshmerga fought several days of pitched battles in and around the city of Sulaymaniyah in October of 1991. By the afternoon of the third day Iraqi resistance in Sulaymaniyah had been reduced to a complex of buildings at the southwest edge of the city. Hundreds of Kurdish irregulars gathered for a final push against the Iraqis, which I witnessed.

After an hour or so of small arms, rocket, and mortar exchanges Kurdish forces mounted an infantry charge across several hundred meters of open field and captured the first line of buildings in the Iraqi position. As the Kurds advanced uphill toward the final cluster of buildings they topped a small rise in the ground, beyond which numbers of Iraqi soldiers lay dead and wounded. Other Iraqi soldiers in that area of open ground made clear they were surrendering by laying down their weapons, kneeling on the ground, and locking their hands behind their heads. Many were crying “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great), pleading for mercy. No further shots were fired from the main building at the top of the rise, where most of the remainder of the Iraqi soldiers were located. In effect, the battle was over.

The Iraqi soldiers I could see were hors de combat, that is, “out of combat” and therefore entitled to be protected, not attacked, and treated humanely according to the provisions of international humanitarian law. Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which governs “conflict not of an international character” such as the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq, states: “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.”

For those deemed hors de combat, the article prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” The ban is absolute. As the International Committee of the Red Cross Commentary to Common Article 3 makes clear: “No possible loophole is left; there can be no excuse, no attenuating circumstances.” In an international conflict, violation of this principle constitutes a grave breach.

Instead of accepting the surrender of the Iraqi soldiers, as required by law and as had been the practice in recent fighting around Sulaymaniyah, the Kurds executed them. An Iraqi soldier with no weapon, and with his hands in the air, was shot and killed a few steps from me. Seven unarmed prisoners kneeling on the ground nearby were shot to death moments later. Individually and in small groups, every Iraqi soldier I saw outside the main building was executed. None had weapons, nor were they resisting or trying to escape.

By the time I reached the main building at least seventy-five Iraqi soldiers had been herded into a large room. None was armed or resisting and many appeared to have been wounded in the fighting before it stopped. These prisoners were also shot and killed. Kurds with Kalashnikovs emptied magazine after magazine into what became a blood-soaked pile of bodies. Some Kurdish noncombatants joined in the slaughter, using blocks of concrete to crush the heads of the Iraqi soldiers who had not yet died of their wounds. Within thirty minutes, all Iraqi soldiers at the location—probably about 125—were dead.

The murder of these Iraqi soldiers was a war crime, judged by even the narrowest definitions of international humanitarian law. Once a combatant “falls into the power of an adversary,” is incapacitated, attempts to surrender, or is captured, he is entitled to protection.

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