In keeping with recent events, reading the Al-Sweady report by Sir Thayne Forbes is not a pleasant experience. It reaches almost the exact opposite conclusions of the previous inquiry into alleged mistreatment in Iraq by British forces, finding that while some of those detained after the Battle of Danny Boy were mistreated, they were certainly not subjected to the beatings that led to the death of Baha Mousa. Unlike Mousa, Forbes also finds beyond doubt that all 9 of those detained and whom subsequently alleged they were mistreated were either members of or volunteers with the Mahdi army, as were the 28 Iraqis killed by British forces that day following the ambush. Forbes additionally finds Leigh Day solicitors knew as early as September 2007 that their clients were insurgents, having obtained a document from the Office of the Martyr Al Sayyed Al Sadr which detailed their positions within the Mahdi army.
Whether the inquiry would have came into being had the document been disclosed early we can't know. Certainly, it's likely the detainees would not have received legal aid for their original claim in the administrative court had the full truth been in the open. That doesn't however excuse the Ministry of Defence's failure to disclose their own documentation on the events of the 14th and 15th of May 2004 fully back in 2009, which led to then defence secretary Bob Ainsworth setting up the full independent inquiry. Had that happened the allegations could have been disproved far sooner, with the cost of the inquiry, estimated at £31m, much reduced.
It's easy nonetheless to understand why so many ordinary Iraqis believed the claims that rather than being killed on the battlefield, some of those who died that day were tortured and then executed back at the British base, Camp Abu Naji. Tensions had risen in the area following an incident that resulted in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf being damaged, allegedly by US forces engaging the Mahdi army. The ambush at Danny Boy (as the checkpoint on the road between Basra and Al Amarah was known by call sign) was in apparent direct retaliation for the attack, despite British forces not having been involved. Forbes notes the assault was responded to with exemplary courage, resolution and professionalism, with only injuries to the British side despite the ferocity of the attack. The Iraqis were also not subject to a bayonet charge as had been claimed, with all injuries to the attackers a result of either bullet or shrapnel wounds.
Had the bodies of the attackers been left where they fell, it's likely fewer local civilians would have believed the claims subsequently made. Instead, a highly unusual order came through for the soldiers to identify the bodies. The original intention was for the bodies to be photographed, but this apparently then morphed into taking them back to the base, as this would be the best way of doing so. The idea was to check whether one of the men thought responsible for the killing of six Royal Military Police the previous year, Naseer Zachra Abd Rufeiq, was among the dead, as it was believed he could be. Predictably, he wasn't.
How much in the way of further damage was caused to the bodies by the transfer isn't clear. Forbes accepts it was possible some was done, not least as due to the room taken up by the corpses some had to be stood on for the soldiers to be able to take up the usual "top cover" positions. Once unloaded, they were then moved again before they were photographed. Blood samples were additionally taken, leaving puncture wounds which could also have given the impression of abuse.
Arrangements were made for the bodies to be handed over to the Iraqis the following day. For reasons Forbes wasn't able to properly ascertain, some of the medics and ambulance drivers at the Al Majar al’Kabir hospital came to believe they were also to collect some Iraqis merely injured. After the handover, the bodies were first taken to Al-Sadr Hospital, where footage was recorded showing in Forbes' words how "clearly even before the bodies had been
properly examined, conclusions were being reached about how some of the deceased had sustained their injuries". The bodies were then moved again, to Al Majar al’Kabir hospital, where they were examined by Dr Adel Al-Shawi and Dr
Jafar Nasser Hussain Al-Bahadl. Death certificates were issued, some of which observe the bodies show signs of torture, beatings and mutilation. Even taking into account the bodies may have been further damaged in transit, the evidence, including the photographs taken at Abu Naji, discount those observations. Forbes concludes the doctors "were so caught up in the emotional turmoil and hostility to the British Military then prevailing" that they failed "to apply the professionally rigorous and objective judgment" expected of them.
The one part of the report the MoD won't be pleased with is on how those detained on the battlefield were subsequently treated during their detention. Despite the death of Baha Mousa the previous year, it finds three of the detainees were forcibly strip-searched, and kept blindfolded for too long; they were not expressly authorised as being healthy enough to undergo "tactical questioning"; the soldier undertaking the questioning was poorly trained, and believed throwing a chair during interrogation was authorised behaviour; and that the training itself was still lacking. Taken out of context, some of the ill-treatment Forbes identifies seem minimal; these were insurgents after all, are we really meant to be shocked or appalled by how they had their necks blown on? When you learn the blowing comes in a sequence of events, which began with the detainee entering the room blindfolded, left seemingly alone for a while until suddenly the interrogator either drummed his fingers or whistled, before circling the detainee, blowing on his neck and banging a metal peg on the table, only then removing the prisoner's plastic handcuffs and blindfold, it's a little different. Forbes also finds the men were sleep deprived, again like Mousa, as well as being denied adequate food and water.
Phil Shiner in a piece for the Graun claims there are a further 30 Baha Mousa-type cases and that by January the high court will have heard of up to 1,100 cases of mistreatment or worse by UK troops. The obvious question following the Al-Sweady inquiry is how many of these are similarly based on deliberate lies. Not all of the claims are however purely one side against the other: Forbes deals a number of times in the report with soldiers themselves alleging they were witness to mistreatment, or having concerns about what they saw or heard. He discounts each one, but that doesn't alter the fact. It could be the response of the defence secretary Michael Fallon, angrily denouncing the lawyers involved, is based less on the particulars of this inquiry and what might still be ahead. It could also be that Public Interest Lawyers, having found one horrific example of abuse in the case of Baha Mousa went to see if there were others, and has been misled by the Iraqis themselves. This doesn't explain why the document in the possession of Leigh Day proving the 9 men were insurgents didn't come to light earlier though.
Whatever the case, it doesn't excuse the MoD for its failures to anticipate exactly the kind of conditions and situations the military were going to have deal with once tasked with maintaining security in the south of Iraq. The Al-Sweady report while debunking the most serious claims against the military underlines how much was still the same almost nine months on from the death of Baha Mousa, with the recognition something had gone badly wrong in that instance only dragged out by a similar public inquiry. One hopes the recommendations made by Sir William Gage in his report have been implemented, as will be the additional ones made today by Forbes, if they haven't already. We also still await the Chilcot report and its conclusions on Iraq in general, now highly unlikely to be published before the election. It's probably best we don't mention how by then UK military personnel will be officially back in the country.
Labels: Al-Sweady inquiry, Baha Mousa, British army abuse, Iraq, Ministry of Defence, Sir Thayne Forbes