From the moment I knocked on the front door of Daoud Mousa al-Maliki’s home in Basra, I knew something had gone terribly wrong in the British Army in southern Iraq.
I had seen British military brutality in Northern Ireland – I had even been threatened by British officers in Belfast – but I somehow thought that things had changed, that a new, more disciplined army had emerged from the dark, sinister days of the Irish conflict. But I was wrong. Baha Mousa, Daoud’s son, had died from the injuries he received in British custody, a young, decent man whose father was a cop, who did nothing worse than work as a receptionist in a Basra hotel.
Then I went to see Kifah Taha, who had been so badly beaten by British troops in the presence of Baha Mousa that he had terrible wounds in the groin. He told me how the soldiers would call their Iraqi prisoners by the names of football stars – Beckham was one name they used – before kicking them around the detention headquarters in Basra. There were stories of Iraqi prisoners being forced to kneel on sharp stones, of being kicked and punched in the groin, the kidneys, the back, shoulders, forced to sit with their heads down lavatory holes.
All this is among the evidence which ex-prisoners – and Baha Mousa’s father – are taking to the High Court, now that the courts martial which followed Mousa’s death have produced just one solitary conviction, a soldier jailed for a year and dismissed from the Army for “mistreating” prisoners.
There’s an old rule of thumb which I always apply to armies in the field. If you find out about one abuse, you can bet there were a hundred others that will never be revealed. New stories of “forced disappearances”, hostage-taking and torture in British custody are emerging from Basra. US troops are still being questioned about unlawful killings and torture in Iraq. If one girl is raped and murdered and her family slaughtered by a US unit south of Baghdad – all of which is true – how many others have died in circumstances we shall never discover?
The My Lai atrocity in Vietnam was revealed relatively soon after it occurred. But it was more than 40 years after the Korean War that we learned US soldiers had fired into thousands of unarmed Korean civilian refugees, because they feared troops were hiding among them. How many air strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq kill the innocent yet go unrecorded, because journalists are no longer safe to travel in these remote, dangerous areas?
Looking back, I found out about Baha Mousa only because it was still safe – just – to move around in Basra in 2004, to knock on front doors, visit hospitals, interview grieving relatives without the fear of being kidnapped or having my throat cut. Baha Mousa’s young wife had died only a few months before him – from a tumour of the brain – and his two small children sat devastated in their home, staring at me as if I were a war criminal. His father, Daoud, said to me then, as he says in his latest affidavit: “As for me, Baha was not just my son, he was my friend.”
His indignation at the failure of the British courts martial to convict anyone for Baha’s murder rings through his affidavit, a moving cry for justice from a good man in Iraq who expected British troops to protect his family, not kill his son. He even believed an officer who promised to look after Baha, two days before Daoud was invited to inspect and identify his broken body.
How have we failed these people! What culture created these young men who treated their civilian prisoners with such contempt, cursing them and – if the documents are accurate – calling them “shit” and treating them like animals? Did it come from Glasgow or Cardiff or London or from some prison – yes, quite a lot of British soldiers are ex-prisoners themselves, former guests of Her Majesty who know all about prison rules and prison abuse.
How come the Americans tortured men at Abu Ghraib – officially permitted to do so, as we now know – without realising that they were breaking the rules of ordinary humanity? Is this the result, perhaps, of all those violent, virtual reality worlds so shockingly documented by Tim Guest in his new book, Second Lives, where pain no longer hurts, where lives are only “virtual”, where killing is easy?
Yes, I know the old saw, that our chaps are up against it, risking their lives in the front line, occasionally running over the traces amid the fear and drama of battle, a few rotten apples, etc. That’s what we said about the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment when they killed 14 innocent Catholic civilians in Derry in 1972. First Para? Salt of the earth. Maybe they just broke after so much abuse and danger – except that 1st Para were a reserve battalion at the time, largely confined to Palace Barracks outside Belfast.
And the soldiers in Basra? They were beating their prisoners in the comfort of their barracks – “Chemical Ali’s” old jail, of course – in the comparative safety of Basra in the immediate post-invasion months.
It’s all up now, of course. Iraq is a hell-disaster and the old clichés about “hearts and minds” are as dry as the sand on the desert floor. Maybe there are hearts and minds to be maintained inside the Green Zone in Baghdad or any of the other “green zones” around the Middle East where our Western forces shelter from their enemies in their modern versions of the Crusader castles that once littered the Holy Land. But the moral high ground – if ever it could have existed after Tony Blair and George Bush’s illegal invasion – has long ago been abandoned.
We will leave Iraq with all our dreams in pieces, and it will be left to Iraqis themselves – men like Daoud Mousa, carrying the grief of his son’s death with him for ever – to create a new country out of the pain and sorrow we leave behind for them.