WASHINGTON -- President Bush vowed yesterday to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for the "brutal" treatment of downed fliers, and the United States warned Iraq's ranking diplomat here that placement of prisoners near military targets could lead to war-crimes prosecutions.
The United States, Britain and France leveled strong verbal attacks after prisoners were paraded before cameras and after some made statements sympathetic to Iraq that U.S. officials said were coerced.
Mr. Bush, returning to the White House from Camp David, strode to waiting microphones to condemn "the brutal parading of these allied pilots." He said it was a "direct violation of . . . every convention that protects prisoners."
As with Iraq's earlier holding of Western hostages, Mr. Bush said the treatment of U.S. and other prisoners would not make a difference in how the war is conducted.
"But I would make the strongest appeal that these people be treated properly, that they be given the treatment that is accorded to them under the international conventions," the president said. "And they are not being.
"If [Mr. Hussein] thought this brutal treatment of pilots is a way to muster world support, he is dead wrong."
Asked if the Iraqi president would be held accountable, Mr. Bush replied, "You can count on it."
Iraq's announcement that it would disperse the prisoners to military targets, reviving its "human shields" tactic, prompted the State Department to summon Iraqi charge d'affaires Khalid Shewayish for the third time in three days for a strong protest from Robert Kimmitt, undersecretary for political affairs.
"If the government of Iraq places coalition POWs at military targets in Iraq, then Iraqi officials -- whether members of the Iraqi armed forces or civilian government personnel -- will have committed a war crime," the department said in a statement. "Iraqi individuals who are guilty of authorizing or carrying out war crimes are personally liable and subject to prosecution."
In Britain, Prime Minister John Major called broadcasts of the prisoners' statements "wholly objectionable" and said those responsible would be "made accountable when the war ends." The French Foreign Ministry summoned Iraq's ambassador to protest a "flagrant violation of Geneva conventions."
After meeting with Mr. Kimmitt in Washington, Mr. Shewayish said to reporters that civilian sites in Iraq -- with old women, men and children -- had been "targeted by the brutal and savage bombardment by the American and so-called allied planes."
A U.S. official said Mr. Shewayish had raised the charge about civilian targets at the State Department.
"We asked him at the meeting, 'Did he have evidence that we were targeting civilians?' He said, 'No,' he didn't."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was asked if President Bush, in saying Mr. Hussein would be held accountable, was talking about war-crimes trials.
"Well, that's the legal process, yes," he replied.
Other officials said the government was keeping its options open on how to proceed. The Department of the Army has been collecting information on allegations of Iraqi war crimes generally, and administration officials have circulated papers on both war crimes and reparations.
L "The options on how, when and who are still open," one said.
The United States urged the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva to talk to Iraq "about compliance with the Third Geneva Convention" and to demand access to the prisoners, a U.S. official said.
While the Red Cross has representatives in Iraq, the government there "has stiffed them since August," the official said.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, interviewed on morning television, said, "I think that the American people understand that our pilots who have been captured are very brave individuals, that they were doing their duty and that the kinds of ++ statements that are made clearly are made under duress."
Pentagon attorneys said that in addition to barring the use of prisoners as shields to immunize targets from attack, the Geneva Convention also forbids coercion, and forbids subjecting prisoners to degrading action.
"Clearly, in my opinion, parading them in front of the public like a street parade would be degrading action," one said at a briefing for reporters.
"Coercing someone to make a statement is clearly a violation," an attorney said. "Coercion to get information of any kind is an explicit violation of the convention."
In other developments yesterday, Mr. Fitzwater said President Bush, who returned here with a cold, had spoken by phone with other coalition leaders over the last two days, including King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Presidents Francois Mitterrand of France, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Turgut Ozal of Turkey, in addition to the prime ministers of Britain, Italy and Spain.
A spokesman for Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti said Mr. Bush had pledged to work toward the solution of Palestinian and Lebanese crises after the gulf war ends.
Meanwhile, both U.S. and Israeli officials said yesterday that Israel would coordinate with the United States on any retaliation for Scud missile attacks.
"They understand how important these matters are for the United States, and I'm confident that there will be close consultation before they undertake any action," Defense Secretary Cheney said.
In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said, "At a time when it [the United States] is wholly involved in this area, clearly there must be such coordination, and there will be."
Previously, Israel had insisted it would decide when and how to respond.