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U.S. military forces in Iraq appear to have violated the laws of war by demolishing the homes of relatives of suspected insurgents or wanted former officals, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch said that at least four house demolitions over the past two months appeared to be for purposes of punishing families of suspected insurgents or compelling their cooperation. Destroying civilian property as a reprisal or deterrent amounts to collective punishment, which is prohibited by the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

“Troops are entitled to suppress armed attacks, but they can only destroy a civilian structure when it is being used in an attack,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “These demolitions did not meet the test of military necessity.”

Human Rights Watch is also concerned that U.S. forces in two of the cases reportedly took into custody persons who were not suspected of wrongdoing, but instead were close relatives of persons whom the U.S. military was trying to apprehend. In one case, U.S. forces detained the wife and daughter of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a top deputy of Saddam Hussein, and are still holding them in detention after more than six weeks. Detaining persons for the purpose of compelling actions from the opposing side amounts to hostage-taking, which is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions --in other words, a war crime.

“International law allows occupying forces to detain individuals who have attacked them or who pose security threats,” Roth said. “U.S. forces should immediately release anyone being held solely because they are related to a wanted person.”

Human Rights Watch called on Rumsfeld to ensure that the actions of U.S. forces in Iraq comply with the Geneva Conventions, and that the U.S. military holds accountable anyone responsible for ordering, condoning or carrying out serious violations of the laws of war.

Human Rights Watch has condemned as war crimes bombings, assassinations, and other attacks by armed opponents of the U.S. led occupation that target civilians or that indiscriminately harm civilians (

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