November 18, 2018
Middle East

Are British troops abroad keeping us safe at home?

Prime Minister Theresa May used her Christmas message this year to pay tribute to the armed forces and remind the country that their sacrifices are "keeping us safe". But are they?

Last week the High Court held that British troops serving in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion had subjected Iraqi civilians to "cruel and inhuman" treatment. It added that the treatment of prisoners by British soldiers meant that the Ministry of Defence also violated the Human Rights Act (1998).

The cycle of violence continues but we were forewarned about all of this by our own security services

Cruel and inhuman

Some have argued that the human rights advocates have purposefully sought to undermine the state and encouraged the "victim mentality" among Muslims. That in turn has given ammunition to the burgeoning far-right movements throughout the West.

The Conservative Party actively opposes the Human Rights Act, which it asserts gives more rights to prisoners – including those held without charge or trial – and has pledged to replace it with a "bill of rights" more in tune with British idiosyncrasies than those in the European Court of Human Rights.

Phil Shiner was once celebrated among Britain's top human rights lawyers because of his dogged persistence in bringing British soldiers accused of abuses in Iraq to book (Reuters)

They cite the case of Phil Shiner, once celebrated among Britain's top human rights lawyers precisely because of his dogged persistence in bringing British soldiers accused of abuses in Iraq to book.

Earlier this year, Shiner was struck off as a solicitor after being found guilty of "professional misconduct". Shiner's law firm, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), represented countless Iraqis who claimed they had been abused by British soldiers during the occupation.

Thousands of cases were referred by PIL to the government's Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which "independently" reviewed the cases.

The Battle of Danny Boy

In May 2004, a British detachment of soldiers patrolling in southern Iraq were ambushed by the Mahdi Army, a pro-Iranian militia run by Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who had mobilised Iraqi Shias against the occupation. The ensuing incident became known as the "Battle of Danny Boy".

Fighting was intense and hand-to-hand in some places as soldiers resorted to using bayonets. After taking control, it was alleged that British soldiers tortured, murdered and mutilated captured Iraqi prisoners.


Protesters outside the Chilcot report inquiry in July 2016 (AFP)

Shiner was accused of paying an Iraqi middleman to find witnesses who concocted the allegations. Several years later, the multi-million-pound Al Sweady inquiry determined that the allegations were "wholly baseless".

The impact of the allegations on the morale of the soldiers was summed up by Colonel James Coote who'd held a commanding position during Danny Boy: "The false allegations levelled against the soldiers in my command were among the most serious against the British army since the Second World War."

Despite Shiner's fall from grace, however, PIL's work in exposing British abuses in Iraq make for disturbing reading.

Culture of impunity

Shiner's most prominent case was Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist killed by British soldiers in 2003. Mousa was terrorised, denied food and water, suffered heat exhaustion, hooded, put in stress positions and beaten to death. His body had 93 injuries. A public inquiry in 2011 found that Mousa suffered "serious, gratuitous violence" and identified many other soldiers involved in abuses.

Notwithstanding Al-Sweady and Shiner, in 2016 IHAT was actively investigating nearly 300 British soldiers who served in Iraq and informed them that they could face criminal charges.

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"Invasion of Iraq, a war crime? Arguments against Blair must be heard

Despite that, the government announced this year it would be shutting down IHAT after it "directly harmed the defence of our nation" following the Shiner case.

The government also conceded settlements in favour of 326 civil cases, while another 628 claims remain, and yet criminal charges have never been brought against any military personnel. A pervasive culture of impunity clearly exists.

Last year, David Cameron ordered the government to crack down on legal firms seeking to pursue claims against Iraq veterans and took the unprecedented threat to sue those thought to be manufacturing “spurious” claims.

Theresa May has followed suit against what her former defence secretary called "ambulance-chasing British law firms". But evidence from these firms is credible enough for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to use in its investigation. The bullying tactics seem to have failed.


Tony Blair visits British troops in Iraq in May 2003 (AFP)

Earlier this month, the chief prosecutor of the ICC at the Hague ruled that there was a "reasonable basis" to assert British soldiers had committed "war crimes" against prisoners during the occupation of Iraq.

The allegations, now being investigated by the ICC, pertain to various human rights violations including "wilful killing and inhuman treatment" in British military custody.

From bad to worse

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Colonel Tim Collins gave a stirring speech to his soldiers and told them to "tread lightly" in "the birthplace of Abraham" and "respect" the people of Iraq. He also told them to be "ferocious in battle" but “magnanimous in victory". Collins clearly wanted his troops to live up to what he believed were military ideals.

"Their [Iraqi] children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you… As for ourselves, let's bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there." History will attest to how much "better" Iraq became.

The justification to invade Iraq was based on false claims that Saddam Hussain possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was training al-Qaeda in their use. This evidence came from the "dodgy dossier" and the torture of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi.


In Baghdad's Karrada neighbourhood after a suicide bombing last July (AFP)

This lie was peddled to everyone, especially the military. Soldiers were made to believe that they were going to save the world from the existential threat posed by Saddam, his Baath Party followers and al-Qaeda.

The origins of the cycle of violence

As occupation forces settled in, local power was systemically divested from all remnants of the Iraqi regime – and those deemed close to it, namely Iraq's Sunnis – and the country's infrastructure was effectively dismantled, including the army and the police.

The Shia population, which had been brutally repressed under Saddam, was now led by politicians and leaders who wielded control of militias bent on seeking revenge. Sunnis were increasingly excluded and marginalised and sectarianism was allowed to manifest.

"Death squads" carried out atrocities on both sides, even as British and American soldiers were committing their own. Meanwhile, as Britain's mission in Iraq came to an end, prime minister Gordon Brown told the world: "We have made a huge contribution and of course given people an economic stake in the future of Iraq. We leave Iraq a better place."

It was ultimately the occupation's empowerment of one sect against another that dismembered Iraq. Today, the impunity enjoyed by the US-led occupation forces is being repeated in the fight against Islamic State.


British soldiers mark the conclusion of the British-Iraqi Training and Maritime Support Agreement in Umm Qasr, close to the southern city of Basra (AFP)

The abuses carried out by the Iraqi army and militias are at times worse than their opponents. And they have been financed, trained and supported on the ground by British and American troops. Islamic State in turn has carried out numerous attacks on British soil. The cycle of violence thus continues but we were forewarned about all of this by our own security services.

The Iraq record

On 10 February 2003, a Joint Intelligence Committee briefing clearly warned the government.

The threat from al-Qaeda will increase at the onset of any military action against Iraq. They will target Western interests, especially in the US and UK, for maximum impact. The worldwide threat from other Islamist terrorist groups and individuals will increase significantly.

READ MORE►

Chilcot highlighted a deep-rooted contempt for Iraq

Al-Qaeda and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-US/anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West.

Before leaving office former US president Barack Obama admitted that Islamic State was an "unintended consequence" of the invasion of Iraq even though America and Britain has been involved in bombing, invading, occupying and imprisoning Iraqis continuously since 1991. Blowback was just a question of time.

Some may believe that British troops abroad are/were keeping us safe at home but, in truth, their record in Iraq is among the primary reasons why Britain is facing the greatest terrorism threat since the Irish "Troubles".

– Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, author of Enemy Combatant and outreach director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE. Follow him on Twitter: @Moazzam_Begg

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.that circumstances that lead up to such crimes are recognised and prevented.

British soldiers guard a group of Iraqi men in southern Iraq in 2003 (Reuters)

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