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Iraq: U.K. Government Defends Iraqi Prisoner Treatment, But Investigations Continue

As the U.S. government faces a mounting wave of criticism over its handling of abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops, its main coalition ally, Britain, is coming under similar fire for its treatment of Iraqi prisoners. Britain's defense minister yesterday defended the performance of the country's troops, and attempted to deflect accusations the government response had been too little, too late.

London, 11 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Fuel was added today to the controversy over British treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

The human rights watchdog Amnesty International issued a report alleging that the British military failed to investigate cases in which soldiers killed Iraqi civilians.

"I want to say on behalf of the British government that we unreservedly apologize to any Iraqis where the evidence shows that they have been mistreated."
Amnesty spokeswoman Lesley Warner says, "Our concern is that these deaths [resulting from British military actions] in Iraq have not been properly investigated and that we are losing the confidence of the Iraqi people, both because of the lack of investigation and also because of the lack of transparency, the lack of actually, how do people get compensations, as well. So, there are some really big issues going on at the moment."

The Amnesty report accuses British troops of shooting civilians where there was no apparent threat. An eight-year-old girl was among those killed by British fire.

The report comes one day after government officials in London defended their response to allegations that British troops may have abused Iraqi prisoners under their supervision.

Speaking before parliament, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon acknowledged that British military procedure had been violated in the treatment of some Iraqi prisoners. But he said the abuse -- cited in a confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) -- had been stopped and was now under investigation:

"I want to say on behalf of the British government that we unreservedly apologize to any Iraqis where the evidence shows that they have been mistreated," Hoon said.

Hoon added, however, that "the unauthorized actions of a very few must not be allowed to undermine the outstanding work of tens of thousands of British soldiers and civilians."

The ICRC report, which was compiled between March and November of last year, was handed to coalition military commanders in February -- but was not forwarded to Hoon, Prime Minister Tony Blair, or other members of his cabinet.

The report focuses mainly on accusations against American troops. But it raises three allegations about British forces, including a charge that British troops caused the death of an Iraqi detainee and that they routinely placed hoods over prisoners' heads -- a violation of British military regulations.

Hoon said the hooding of detainees was stopped last September and that the death of the Iraqi prisoner, Baha Mousa, is one of 33 cases under current investigation.

"It's fair to say that the International Committee of the Red Cross are generally satisfied with our approach and that they describe conditions of internment as fairly good. We will obviously continue to work very closely with them to ensure prisoners' concerns are addressed, and, in the light of recent publications, we judge that if the ICRC were willing to publish their report, then certainly the United Kingdom would have absolutely no objections whatsoever," Hoon said.

But Hoon and Blair have come under fire from opponents who say the government should have acted sooner in dealing with the charges detailed in the Red Cross report.

Hoon said yesterday the military commanders who acted to stop the violations mentioned in the report saw no reason to pass the report on to him or the prime minister.

For his part, Tony Blair admitted he had not seen the ICRC report until last week. But speaking at a press conference yesterday with China's visiting Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Blair said he was confident the specific allegations "have been dealt with properly."

"It is not fair to say that the whole of British troops are engaged in such practices, when -- as is evident, as I understand it from the Red Cross report -- this is about a particular practice and a particular individual case, both of which were looked into," Blair said.

Yet, the government's handling of the ICRC report brought strong criticism from opposition lawmakers during yesterday's parliamentary session. Nicholas Soames is the Conservative Party's shadow defense secretary.

"As the coalition seeks to bring democracy, stability, and freedom to the broken country of Iraq, then the promotion of the rule of law in this chaotic and disastrously ill-planned postconflict environment must come first," Soames said.

Debate in yesterday's session also addressed recent media reports purporting to document instances of torture by British troops. The "Daily Mirror" newspaper early this month published photographs it says show an Iraqi prisoner being abused.

Hoon said the photographs were a hoax, and that the truck model depicted in the photos had not been used in Iraq. He demanded an explanation from the newspaper.

"There are strong indications that the vehicle in which the photographs were taken was not in Iraq during the relevant period. Additional lines of inquiry are being pursued to corroborate this fact," Hoon said.

The "Daily Mirror's" editor in chief, Piers Morgan, has since changed his claim the photographs were authentic, now saying they "accurately illustrate" the mistreatment documented in Iraq. The British unit named in the "Mirror" story has demanded a public apology from the paper.

But regardless of whether the photos are real or not, some observers say the reputations of British troops have already been dealt a permanent blow.

The say the desecration on 9 May of a Commonwealth war cemetery in Gaza -- during which Palestinian vandals glued photographs of the U.S. and British abuse on headstones -- is just the latest sign of the mounting anger in the Arab world over the coalition's presence in Iraq.

Ben Fenton is a senior journalist at "The Daily Telegraph" newspaper.

"We did a review of the world's press which shows that in most parts of the world, I think, the question of whether the pictures are real or not is almost academic. So, really, the damage has been done," Fenton said.

The damage may extend to the British public as well. A recent poll shows support for Tony Blair's Labour government has dropped to a 17-year low, dropping 4 percentage points below the Conservatives.

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