Let's face up to it - we are torturers too
Last week, the British government admitted for the first time that investigations are under way into the killing in British military custody of 10 Iraqis, double the number previously stated. Meanwhile, the government has dispatched additional troops to the region and is now seeking immunity for these troops from criminal prosecution in a nominally independent Iraq.
Despite the growing list of murder cases and a continuing stream of evidence of torture, the government's position remains one of obstinate denial. Tony Blair's preferred response is to say that a few troops have been engaged in "unacceptable" and individual acts of indiscipline.
No British troops have been punished and, despite a year of evidence, no British soldiers have been named by the military apart from Colonel Tim Collins - who was cleared of charges of war crimes by a British Army investigation.
In Britain, no report equivalent to that of General Taguba of the US has been made available, and investigations are conducted in secrecy, if at all. There have been no hearings in which parliamentary or other committees question publicly and government and military officials.
Nor has parliament been given a private viewing of gruesome photographs of sadistic acts by British troops against their Iraqi charges. The suspect photographs published by the Daily Mirror have been used to discredit all other evidence. But apparently genuine photographs have been in the hands of police and the Ministry of Defence's special investigation branch since at least May 2003. At that time, an 18-year-old member of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, Gary Bartlam, was detained by Warwickshire police when the film he took to be developed revealed images of British soldiers engaged in torture that is remarkably similar to that practised by US troops and mercenaries at Abu Ghraib.
There is no information about how many of the Fusiliers were involved in torture and how high up the Battalion or Regiment the violations were sanctioned. Nor is there any explanation for the similarity of methods of humiliation and torture. Is it a shared culture of depravity or a shared understanding of the efficacy of particular methods of torture?
The evidence from Abu Ghraib came out at the same time as the US attack on Falluja killed hundreds of civilians and devastated the town in a few days. The daily casualty rates in Najaf and Kufa as well as in Karbala, Al-Thawra (Sadr City) and elsewhere soared as US troops used overwhelming firepower in densely populated areas. In the face of clear evidence, US military spokespersons deny that they massacred 40 civilians near the Syrian border on May 21. A week earlier, British forces engaged an armed and disorganised crowd of Iraqis south of the town of Amara and killed up to 40 people. There has been no government questioning of the enormously disproportional rate of casualties.
Britain is not only an ally of the US, but British troops are engaged in exactly the same kind of activities as US soldiers despite attempts to maintain a fiction to the contrary. This fiction might help Blair for a while but one wonders for how long. The violence cannot be swept aside, especially now that it is overwhelmingly perpetrated against ordinary Iraqis who are viewed as the enemy.
The choice of Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister is not only a slap in the face of a hapless and discredited UN secretariat, but it is also an indication of increased emphasis on intelligence work, interrogation and violent confrontation as opposed to political engagement.
With US support, Allawi has been recruiting former Ba'thist and military personnel just as Bremer has been applying the pressure to break their cohesiveness as a group. To bring these people back into a central political role is an act of desperation that is likely to expand political conflict inside Iraq instead of preparing the country for free elections. There may now be many unreformed members of the old security apparatus coming back into their previous positions under a US-sponsored regime.
With the June 30 transition approaching, abuse and humiliation under US and British custody must be taken more seriously than ever. It is essential that pressure be maintained on the British and US governments to come clean about the activities of troops under their command and about their compliance with the Geneva protocols. As a first step, the British government must answer fully to all the evidence of abuse by British troops - including identifying responsibility within the armed forces for the abuse reported by the International Committee for the Red Cross among others. Without this kind of openness, the present political process in Iraq will be discredited and resistance to occupation will continue.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian. Copyright 2004 The Guardian