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British abuse of Iraqi detainees was a pattern, not a single stain

The UK’s detainee abuse scandal was more than a matter of bad apples. EPA/Nigel Iskander

The report published by the al-Sweady Inquiry has found that charges of murder levelled at a number of British troops by Iraqi prisoners were “without foundation”, but that nonetheless there were instances of ill-treatment at Camp Abu Naji, near Basra in southern Iraq in May 2004.

So, while the report’s headline findings exonerate the troops accused of brutality in the aftermath of the Battle of Danny Boy in 2004 – something trumpeted by much of the media, which is pointing fingers at the lawyers who represented the Iraqis and their families – the body of it actually does little to change the sorry picture of the UK’s treatment of Iraqi detainees.

The abuse confirmed in the report centred on the use of so called “tactical questioning”, the purpose of which was to “extract time-sensitive tactical intelligence from a detainee or to establish if a detainee required [further] interrogation”.

This method was used by a soldier identified as M004 in the report. M004 used “sight restriction” devices to make the questioning more effective. The “bridge, carrot, stick” technique – which, according to M004, involved “giving a detainee a way out of his detention (the bridge), suggesting how the detainee can obtain this (the carrot) and the outcome of not taking this option (the stick)” – was also used.

Sleep deprivation, too, was enforced in order to keep detainees “awake until they had been tactically questioned”.

M004 also used “harshing”, an interrogation technique that involves intimidating a detainee via verbal abuse. When considering the role of “harshing”, inquiry chairman Sir Thayne Forbes noted that it played an “integral part” in the “ill-treatment” of the detainees.

But M004 was not just a “bad apple” deviating from the advice of his superiors: his actions fitted into patterns of behaviour common among UK forces in Iraq.

Baha Mousa

Eight months before M004 deployed “tactical questioning” at Camp Abu Naji, UK forces raided the Hotel Ibn Al Haitham in Basra. During the raid, they detained seven males, one of whom was Baha Mousa. Mousa was to die the following evening.

A post-mortem found that while Mousa was in UK custody, he sustained “93 separate external injuries,” along with internal injuries including fractured ribs.

Baha Mousa’s father at the High Court in London. Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive

An inquiry chaired by Sir William Gage found the causes of Mousa’s death to be “fear and multiple injuries”, the use of stress positions and exposure to extreme heat – along with a savage attack during which Mousa was punched and thrown across a room.

Tariq Sabri al-Fahdawi

Six months before the death of Mousa another Iraqi, Tariq Sabri al-Fahdawi, was transported by an RAF Chinook helicopter to a US detention facility. He was one of more than 60 detainees captured by Australian special forces, accompanied by a single US serviceman who took responsibility for signing off detentions.

While being transported in the helicopter the detainees were required to lie face down. According to a leaked report into Sabri’s death, anyone who refused to adopt the required position was “forced to the floor and knelt upon.” Prior to their transport, the detainees had hessian bags placed on the heads, a violation of a ban on this practice imposed on UK forces decades ago.

On arrival at H1, a secret detention site, al-Fahdawi was found to be “unresponsive”. After al-Fahdawi and another detainee were “loaded into the back of a Humvee vehicle, face down and on top of each other,” they were driven to a “holding facility”. At this facility al-Fahdawi was declared dead. The hessian bag on al-Fahdawi’s head was apparently taped on so tightly that it needed to be cut off.

One of the pictures that sparked the UK’s detainee abuse scandal. British Courts Martial handout/PA Archive

Like the deaths of Mousa and the actions of M004, events surrounding the death of al-Fahdawi raise distressing questions about the practices adopted by UK forces in Iraq in general, not just the acts of a few miscreant troops.


One practice that has caused considerable controversy is the harshing deployed by M004. The officially sanctioned procedure, which has since been banned, allowed UK forces to “shout as loud as possible” at detainees with “uncontrolled fury”.

In one video that has emerged of the practice, UK forces in Iraq are heard threatening two detainees. One soldier is heard shouting “you’re going to fucking hang for this […] one of you is going to hang for it, whose it going to be?”

Another UK soldier then screams, among other things, “you fucking idiot” at one of the detainees. The video is one of hundreds held by the UK Ministry of Defence.

Again and again

According to General Sir Michael Jackson, the chief of the general staff of the UK Army from 2003 to 2006, the events that led to the death of Mousa are “a stain on the character of the British Army”.

This much may be true – yet to suggest, as Sir Jackson’s remarks seem to, that the events are not part of a broader trend in Iraq does not ring true.

The deaths of Mousa and al-Fahdawi, the tactical questioning deployed by M004 and the prevalence of techniques such as harshing illuminate just how prevalent detainee abuse and torture was among UK forces during the Iraq War.

As such, the actions of M004 at Camp Abu Naji should be seen for what they are: not aberrations, but part of an appalling pattern of abusive and lamentable behaviour.

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