Suddenly the sky is dark with chickens coming home to roost. Start with the amazed discovery of the White House, the Defense Department and the U.S. press corps that nations don't care to be invaded, even if they have been misgoverned by a tyrant for decades. How many Russians died defending the Soviet Union from German invasion after enduring famine and Stalin's terror? This isn't 1991, when Iraqis asked themselves, "Why die for Kuwait?"

Basra? "Military officials," ran a Tuesday European press report, "later admitted that they had vastly underestimated the strength of Iraqi resistance and the loyalty of Basra's population to Saddam." The report quoted a British officer as saying, "There are significant elements in Basra who are hugely loyal to the regime."

Kurdish-held northern Iraq? "Even in Kurdistan," reported the London Independent, also on Tuesday (in the person of my brother, Patrick Cockburn), "where the U.S. is popular and where President Saddam committed some of his worst atrocities, there are flickers of Iraqi patriotism. A Kurdish official, who has devoted years to opposing the government in Baghdad, admitted: "Iraqis won't like to see American soldiers ripping down posters of Saddam Hussein, though they might like to do it themselves. They didn't enjoy watching the Stars and Stripes being raised near Umm Qasr."

And so it will all get much, much nastier. Saddam Hussein, a devoted admirer of Joseph Stalin, must have the Stalingrad parallel in mind. A confident invading German army, extended lines of communication vulnerable to weather and guerrilla attack, and then Stalin's order to the Red Army, "Not another inch of retreat," followed by the savagery of house to house urban fighting.

One doesn't have to parallel the German defeat with one for the U.S. and Britain, or substitute sandstorms and approaching summer heat for snow and the Russian winter, but merely remember what happened to the city of Stalingrad, in which scarcely one brick was left on top of another. The actual fighting component of the invading U.S./U.K. force is not particularly large, because (as anonymous Pentagon officers are now bitterly complaining) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's preference for Special Forces prevailed over General Tommy Franks' recommendation of a massive army, also because huge peace demonstrations in Turkey lopped off the northern half of the invading pincers.

The temptation to flatten significant portions of Baghdad by B-52 raids will grow sharply if the land force gets seriously stymied.

But perhaps the most grotesque chicken now roosting in the coop came in the form of Rumsfeld's sudden discovery of the Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners of war. When five captured U.S. soldiers were paraded in front of the Iraqi television cameras on Sunday, Rumsfeld immediately complained that "it is against the Geneva Convention to show photographs of prisoners of war in a manner that is humiliating for them."

True. But alas, the United States does not hold the high moral ground in leveling this charge. In the Bush years, it's trodden the Geneva Conventions into the dirt, as Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights points out.

In January 2001, the United States released the famous picture of Guantanamo detainees kneeling, shackled and hooded. There was an international uproar, and the Red Cross said the United States may have violated the Conventions by releasing the photo.

No "coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever." Under conditions of sleep deprivation and bright light, and other techniques used by Israel against Palestinians, several of the prisoners in Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo have tried to kill themselves.

The U.S. government claims that these men are not subject to the Geneva Conventions, as they are not "prisoners of war," but "unlawful combatants." But as George Monbiot of the London Guardian remarks, "The same claim could be made, with rather more justice, by the Iraqis holding the U.S. soldiers who illegally invaded their country. But this redefinition is itself a breach of Article 4 of the third convention, under which people detained as suspected members of a militia (the Taliban) or a volunteer corps (al-Qaida) must be regarded as prisoners of war.

On March 6, American military officials acknowledged that two prisoners captured in Afghanistan in December had died during interrogation at Bagram air base north of Kabul. A spokesman for the air base confirmed that the official cause of death of the two men was "homicide." The men's death certificates showed that one captive died from "blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease," while another captive, Mullah Habibullah, 30, suffered from a blood clot in the lung that was exacerbated by a "blunt force injury."

On Nov. 21, 2001, around 8,000 Taliban soldiers and Pashtun civilians surrendered at Konduz to the Northern Alliance commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Jamie Doran's film, "Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death," records some hundreds, possibly thousands, of the prisoners being loaded into trucks, the doors sealed and the trucks left to stand in the sun for several days. Dostum's men finally machine-gunned the containers. When they arrived at Sheberghan, most of the captives were dead. The U.S. Special Forces running the prison watched the bodies being unloaded. According to Doran, they instructed Dostum's men to "get rid of them before satellite pictures can be taken."

Doran interviewed a Northern Alliance soldier guarding the prison. "I was a witness when an American soldier broke one prisoner's neck. The Americans did whatever they wanted. We had no power to stop them." Another soldier alleged: "They took the prisoners outside and beat them up, and then returned them to the prison. But sometimes they were never returned, and they disappeared." After an investigation, the German newspaper Die Zeit concluded that: "No one doubted that the Americans had taken part."

The third Geneva Convention prohibits "violence to life and person, in particular, murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture," as well as extra-judicial execution." It is impossible to know whether U.S. violations of the Conventions led to Iraqi non-compliance," Ratner says, "but U.S. compliance would have certainly made its current complaints more credible and less hypocritical. Selective compliance with the law by the U.S. leads to selective compliance by others."

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.