British court martial whitewashes abuse of Iraqis

The court martial of three British soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi civilians in May 2003 has ended in a whitewash.

Though a total of four soldiers have now been jailed and dismissed from the army, the trial exonerated the higher command at the so-called Camp Bread Basket in southern Iraq. The broader context in which the abuses were carried out—involving at least 70 other soldiers—was all but ignored in order to make the case that a few individuals had gone too far in the heat of the moment.

The charges had to be brought after a shop assistant turned in to police photographs that had been taken for development by soldier Gary Bartlam in May 2003. They showed an Iraqi civilian dangling from a forklift truck, naked Iraqis being forced to simulate sex acts, and soldiers physically abusing other bound Iraqis.

Bartlam was tried separately after he agreed to give evidence against the three soldiers clearly identified in the photographs. He was sentenced to 18 months in a youth detention centre and disgracefully discharged from the army after he admitted taking photographs of the Iraqis simulating oral and anal sex.

On February 23, a military jury of seven British officers found the other three soldiers—Lance Corporal Mark Cooley, Corporal Daniel Kenyon and Corporal Darren Larkin—guilty.

Cooley drove the forklift with the bound Iraqi hanging from its forks and appeared in what was claimed to be a staged photograph “pretending to punch a detainee.”

Kenyon was found guilty of aiding another soldier in an assault on a detainee and failing to report both the forklift incident and the incidence in which soldiers under his command had forced prisoners to simulate sex while being photographed. Larkin, who appeared in a photograph standing on an Iraqi prisoner bound in a cargo net, as if riding a surfboard, pleaded guilty to a single charge of assault for which he expected to receive a six-month jail sentence. He was also originally charged with forcing Iraqi prisoners to strip, but this was dropped after an eyewitness said he was no longer sure it was Larkin he saw.

Late on Friday, February 25, the panel handed down sentences against the three of two years, 18 months and 140 days, respectively, and dismissed them from the army.

Given the overwhelming evidence contained in the photographs, which had been made public by the media and appeared on the Internet, a guilty verdict in this case was unavoidable. However, though the actions of the four were inexcusable, they had not acted alone. Evidence submitted at the trial indicated that some 70 soldiers had been involved in the various abuses. No one else was named by any of the accused, and no real effort was made to identify others.

Most importantly, as far as the army was concerned, was the decision not to press charges against the camp’s commanding officer, Major Dan Taylor. This was despite the fact that Taylor was the author of “Operation Ali Baba,” in which he had instructed his men that Iraqis rounded up for looting food supplies, often desperate, should be “worked hard”—recognised army slang for being subjected to physical abuse.

The court heard that such a directive was a blatant breach of the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of civilians by occupying troops. But Brigadier General Nick Carter, who investigated the crimes at Camp Bread Basket, wrote a letter to Taylor that was read out in court. This explained that no charges would be brought against Taylor, whom Carter stated had “acted with well-meaning and sincere but misguided zeal.”

Just as noticeable was the lack of effort by the court martial to solicit testimony from any of the victims of the abuses.

The Royal Military Police, who were responsible for the investigation, maintained that they were unable to find them. However, on Friday, February 24, the Independent newspaper revealed that its reporters had tracked down the victims who all live within a mile of Camp Bread Basket, in just 48 hours. None of the victims knew of the court martial. They live in extreme poverty in the slum district of Guzezih, with no access to the Internet.

The testimony solicited by the Independent’s reporters makes clear why the army could not afford for them to be questioned in court. In contrast to the claims that the abuses seen in the photographs were isolated incidents and were largely staged or simulated, the Iraqis detail widespread severe beatings that resulted in broken limbs and other injuries.

Ra’aidh Hassan Abdulhussein, 33, was a warehouse worker at Camp Bread Basket when he was arrested by British troops. He says he was beaten and his arm was broken. “The soldiers made me take my shirt off and then started to hit me and kick me. They used a metal rod of some kind and it hurt very much. My arm was broken at the elbow and it became crooked. I do not know what they were accusing me of because they never asked me any questions.

“There were four soldiers involved…. This is our country, but they treated us like animals. No one from the British side has come to talk to me,” the Independent quotes.

Ra’aidh Attaya Ali, 29 and Ali Radhi Kassim, 24, are the two photographed in a simulated sex act. They told the newspaper of their shame and disgust at what was done to them. Ra’aidh Attaya Ali was an employee of the Ministry of Trade, working at the camp. He had been arrested in the morning and was not released until the afternoon when he was able to tell Iraqi police officers who he was, the paper reports.

“A soldier suddenly appeared and told me to sit down with my hands on my head. When I tried to get my official identity card out of my shirt pocket he fired a shot very close to my head.”

He continued, “Soldiers then took me inside a store, put a net over me and tied me to a post. I was left there for a while. Then I was taken down and told to take my clothes off. Then they made me do very bad things, sexual things, with another prisoner. The soldiers were laughing and joking. They told us to put our thumbs up as if to show we were enjoying ourselves…

“I am a father with children and they were doing this to me. I wish I was dead at that point, what they were making us do was so shameful.”

Ali Radhi Kassim, who was working in one of the warehouses at the camp when he was arrested, explained, “I was put with a group of prisoners, around 30 of them and they started beating us. I was told to undress and they put me with Ra’aidh who was also naked….

“Afterwards they told another prisoner, Hassan Kardham, to cut me with a knife. When he refused I was hit with sticks and a metal rod. My collar bone was broken—it was very, very painful,” Kassim said.

After speaking of his own abuse at the hands of the British soldiers, including being dropped from a forklift truck, Hassan Kardham Abdulhussein said, “I saw them make Ra’aidh and Ali take their clothes off and make them do very bad things to each other. I was very angry for them, but there was nothing I could do.

“We were not treated in this way under Saddam. I was in the army and I deserted, but the punishment was not this kind of humiliation.”

Muthannar Jaseem Mahmud said that he too had his arm broken at the elbow, before being forced to carry boxes of milk.

The newspaper comments, “Local people insisted they had not seen any British or Iraqi officials in the area looking for Camp Bread Basket victims. Their presence would have been easily detected.”

What emerges is a picture of systematic abuse that was sanctioned at the highest levels, for which a few low-ranking individuals have been singled out as scapegoats. The parallels with the abuses by US troops at Abu Ghraib could not be clearer.

The response of the British Army and much of the media to the Abu Ghraib revelations was to make out that this was indicative of the difference between an inexperienced US Army that was out of control and a British Army that was well versed in “peacekeeping” in Northern Ireland and dealing respectfully with a civilian population.

Even then, this involved not only falsifying Britain’s actual role in Ireland, but turning a blind eye to what had been revealed by Bartlam’s photos—which had emerged prior to the exposure of the Abu Ghraib abuses. Now, the full scale of the brutality employed by the British Army is beginning to emerge.

British forces have been involved at all levels in the abuse of both Iraqi civilians and prisoners. In September of last year, the government acknowledged that British forces were part of the military chain of command at Abu Ghraib prison when the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners occurred. In response to questions in the British parliament, Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram admitted that two intelligence officers, Colonel Chris Terrington and Colonel Campbell James, were “embedded” within the US unit responsible for the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners. Terrington was second in command of intelligence at the prison.

The systematic abuse of Iraqis is part and parcel of a criminal war and illegal occupation. Iraq is a war with no legitimate military target. The American and British soldiers sent to the Gulf are not there to defeat an enemy army, but to subjugate an entire people to the dictates of US imperialism.

A central component of military strategy is to carry out the maximum humiliation of the enemy. This explains why in both Abu Ghraib and Camp Bread Basket, sexual humiliation features prominently in the abuse. In the course of this, the soldiers themselves become dehumanised, to the point where they cease to be affected by what a normal balanced mind would find deeply disturbing.