WASHINGTON -- The Mideast war may still be going on hotly -- or it may long since have ended -- when American and international efforts to punish Iraq for the way it has treated allied prisoners reach a conclusion.
It is also possible, however, that no efforts will ever be made, at least by this country, to impose punishment, according to international law and military law experts.
U.S. officials and private experts indicated yesterday that they now believe that the Geneva Conventions spelling out how POWs are to be treated already have been violated by Iraq, and thus there already is some evidence that "war crimes" have been committed.
But putting the "war crime" label on acts of mistreatment of POWs in Iraq does not dictate the way America or its allies would go about enforcing the Geneva POW rules against Iraq.
A Pentagon lawyer said yesterday there could be "war crimes trials" -- something that would not come until after the war is over -- or some kind of undefined "military force exerted upon the Iraqis" -- during the war itself.
Just as U.S. and allied military forces are pressing the Mideast war one stage at a time, the efforts to get better treatment for U.S. and allied POWs will move in stages.
The first of those came yesterday: a formal U.S. protest to Iraq, and an initial request by the International Committee of the Red Cross to Iraq to set up Red Cross contacts with the POWs.
The Red Cross efforts have nothing to do with punishment for violations of the Geneva Conventions, and thus nothing to do with "war crimes," according to an international spokeswoman, Ann Stingle. The Red Cross seeks only to intervene, confidentially, to try to work out POW treatment measures satisfying the Conventions, she said.
Only if all such private efforts failed would the Red Cross go public, as a last resort, and try to bring world pressure on Iraq, she said. During the years-long war between Iran and Iraq, the International Red Cross twice resorted to public appeals against those nations over POW issues -- the first time in Red Cross history it felt forced into making two such appeals.
Punishment for "war crimes" is something that is governed in part by international law and, when American POWs are involved, by U.S. military law, experts said yesterday.
A "war crime" is, at a basic level, anything that violates the international "laws of war" -- treaties and long-standing practices on how war is to be conducted. Because the Geneva Conventions, as they apply to POW treatment, are part of the "law of war," their violation would be a "war crime."
A nation at war that is unable to obtain proper treatment for its POWs held by another country is allowed -- but only as a very last resort -- to use military "reprisals" against those who are harming the POWs. Pentagon attorneys appeared to be referring to that option when they said at a briefing that some "type of military force" might be exerted against Iraqover POW abuse.
But the more likely option, it appears, would be a formal war crimes trial, probably coming after the war is over.
Eugene R. Fidell, a leading military law expert here, said: "If those involved here [in the Iraqi treatment of allied POWs] are ever to be prosecuted by anybody, the most likely outcome would be that an international tribunal would do so."
Since the military effort began and continues as an allied effort, and since the POWs are themselves from several nations, Mr. Fidell said, some kind of tribunal set up by international agreement probably would be used.