updated 11/16/2004 2:06:10 PM ET 2004-11-16T19:06:10

Protection of wounded combatants is a basic rule in the universally accepted treaty on warfare applying to the U.S. investigation of the videotaped fatal shooting of a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi combatant, international legal experts said Tuesday. But there is debate on whether self-defense could apply.

Coalition forces in Iraq said the U.S. military was investigating whether the Marine who shot the man “acted in self-defense, violated military law or failed to comply with the Law of Armed Conflict.”

Charles Heyman, a British infantry veteran and senior defense analyst with Jane’s Consultancy Group in London, defended the Marine shown shooting the wounded Iraqi in a mosque in Fallujah.

Danger from wounded enemy
“In a combat infantry soldier’s training, he is always taught that his enemy is at his most dangerous when he is severely injured,” Heyman said. There is the danger that the wounded enemy may be determined to “take one with you,” with a hidden firearm or grenade.

If the man makes even the slightest move, Heyman added, “in my estimation they would be justified in shooting him”

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which champions the Geneva Conventions on warfare, a key part of that law, said it is up to U.S. officials in this case to determine what happened and that self-defense was possible.

“It’s clearly recognized that people in combat situations are under enormous strain,” said ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal. “Obviously, we were not on the spot so we cannot judge the precise circumstances of what was being shown here.”

But, Westphal said, the Geneva Conventions are clear: Protection of wounded combatants once they are out of action is a basic rule.

The status of the wounded man as a prisoner was unclear, Westphal said. “The fact that was reported was that he was wounded. But whether he was already a prisoner or not was not clear to me,” he said.

A different Marine unit had come under fire from the mosque on Friday. Those Marines stormed the building, killing 10 men and wounding five, according to NBC reporter Kevin Sites who was embedded with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment.

Video: Marine investigation The Marines had treated the wounded, he reported, left them behind and continued on Friday with their drive to retake the city from insurgents who have been battling U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq with increasing ferocity and violence in recent months.

The same five men were still in the mosque Saturday when members of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment arrived there.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said, “All violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law must be investigated and those responsible for breaches — including the deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, the killing of injured persons and the use of human shields — must be brought to justice, be they members of the multinational force or insurgents.”

Investigation commenced immediately
A statement from coalition forces in Iraq said the First Marine Division was investigating the incident.

“This investigation commenced immediately when allegations were brought forward and is continuing,” the statement said. “The purpose of this investigation is to determine whether the Marine acted in self-defense, violated military law or failed to comply with the Law of Armed Conflict.”

Jose Diaz, a spokesman for Arbour, said the Law of Armed Conflict includes the Geneva Conventions, which leave it up to the governments that have signed the treaty to make sure their citizens adhere to its provisions.

“We follow the Law of Armed Conflict and hold ourselves to a high standard of accountability,” said U.S. Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, I Marine Expeditionary Force Commanding General. “The facts of this case will be thoroughly pursued to make an informed decision and to protect the rights of all persons involved.”

Geneva Conventions provisions
Each of the four Geneva Conventions, the 1949 treaty that applies to different aspects of warfare, addresses the issue in its opening paragraphs.

“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 (out of combat) by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely,” it says.

“The following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

“Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture...

“The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

It adds that “the wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.”

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