British abuse photos stir wide outrage

Posted in Europe | 20-Jan-05 | Author: Alan Cowell| Source: International Herald Tribune

British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks in the House of Commons in London, during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions, Wednesday Jan. 19, 2005, in this image made from television.
Evidence in court-martial jolts image of troops as more disciplined than GIs

LONDON The image of British troops in Iraq suffered a severe setback Wednesday as British newspapers devoted their front pages to lurid photographs of British soldiers seeming to abuse Iraqi prisoners in May 2003 - part of the evidence against three soldiers facing a court-martial at a British base in Germany.

Since the invasion of Iraq almost two years ago, British leaders have portrayed their soldiers as less aggressive and more adept as peacekeepers than their American counterparts.

But the photographs published Wednesday immediately drew comparisons with widespread American abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, which led this week to the sentencing of Specialist Charles Graner to 10 years for his part in them.

"These pictures will inevitably open old wounds and be part of drawing parallels with Abu Ghraib," said Menzies Campbell, deputy leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, who oppose the Iraq war. The photographs show Iraqis apparently forced to simulate homosexual acts.

British politicians closed ranks in insisting that the abuses have been limited to a tiny minority of the British troops who have deployed in Iraq since the invasion.

Faced with widespread outrage at the images - whose authenticity has not been challenged - Prime Minister Tony Blair sought to contain the potential political damage only months before a national election, which is widely forecast for May.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Blair described the photographs as "shocking and appalling - there are simply no other words to describe them."

But he cited two factors - the court-martial itself and the relative rarity of reported abuses - in defense of Britain's reputation and in suggesting that the British mistreatment of prisoners had been more limited in scale than the problem at Abu Ghraib.

"The vast majority of those 65,000 British soldiers who have served in Iraq have done so with distinction, with courage and with great honor to this country," he said.

"I think and hope that people in Iraq do understand that the very fact that we are taking this action and prosecuting people who we believe may have been guilty of offenses indicates that we do not tolerate this type of activity in any shape or form at all," he said.

Significantly, both government and opposition closed ranks in insisting that, as the Conservative leader Michael Howard put it, the photographs "in no way reflect the true character of Britain's armed forces."

Publication of the photographs has inspired concern that the 9,000 British troops in Iraq - the biggest non-America force from the alliance that invaded in 2003 - could become targets for angry Iraqis just days before the Jan. 30 election in Iraq.

"Their very circulation is liable to increase the difficulties and the dangers for our good troops, honorable troops, in Iraq," said Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader.

But others calculated that, with the elections so close, the Shiite majority in southern Iraq - where the bulk of British troops have been based since the invasion - will see their interest served more by a vote that they are likely to dominate than by a campaign of violence that could jeopardize it.

"Overall the British image is still better than the Americans'," said Ahmed Versi, editor of The Muslim News. "I think the British troops in the south have an advantage, because the southern areas suffered a lot under Saddam Hussein, so the people there will take this in their stride. They are looking forward to a time when there will be no occupation."

Since the occupation started, southern Iraq has generally been far less violent than the so-called Sunni Triangle around Baghdad where resistance to American troops and attacks on Iraqis cooperating with them has been far more intense.

For all that, Versi and others said, the publication of the photographs will give "a very bad image." Indeed, said Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, said: "It will be an uphill struggle to repair the damage."

Blair said he had no plans to increase the number of British troops in southern Iraq.

According to testimony at the court-martial in Osnabrück, Germany, the abuse took place in May 2003, several weeks after American troops reached Baghdad.

At the time, British troops, who had occupied Basra several weeks earlier, reported extensive looting of a depot containing relief supplies like food and powdered milk.

A lawyer defending one of three accused soldiers said in Osnabrück on Wednesday that a more senior officer, Major Dan Taylor, had given an order for looters to be rounded up and "worked hard" to punish them for stealing.

The anti-looting operation was codenamed Operation Ali Baba after a folkloric character in the collection of stories known as the Arabian Nights.

The three soldiers on trial in Germany are Lance Corporal Mark Cooley, 25; Corporal Daniel Kenyon, 33; and Lance Corporal Darren Larkin, 30.

Larkin has admitted one charge of assault. Other charges against the three men - which they have denied - include forcing two men to strip and simulate sexual acts and using a fork-lift truck to hoist a prisoner aloft. The photographs show the men seeming to prepare to punch and kick bound prisoners. The abuse became known when a soldier handed in film from his personal camera for processing on his return from Iraq to Britain and was reported to the civilian police.

Joseph Giret, a lawyer representing Kenyon, said the blame lay with higher-ranking officers who had ordered Operation Ali Baba.

"The whole reason he is in the dock stems from those who gave the order to operate the plan," the lawyer said, according to a report by the Press Association, a British news agency, from Osnabrück.

The argument that the accused soldiers were merely following orders reinforced demands for a fuller inquiry into the extent to which the abuse had been sanctioned by commanders.

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, also said: "We should not just be looking at the lower ranks but address how this has been dealt with at the highest levels."