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British troops have been accused of mutilating and killing Iraqi prisoners taken after a battle near the southern town of Majar al-Kabir.
In the most serious accusation leveled at the army since the end of the war, Iraqis are claiming that more than two dozen prisoners taken after the battle last month suffered injuries so extensive that some bodies could not be identified.
Among the injuries listed on death certificates are castration, a gouged eye, a partially severed
hand, dog bites and marks that doctors say are consistent with strangulation.
Families are planning to instruct British lawyers to bring a suit against the Ministry of Defence while hospital authorities are demanding independent experts examine the bodies to prove the time, cause and place of death.
Meanwhile the incident threatens to ignite an area where tensions already run high and British soldiers are facing the most serious insurrection since the end of the war.
The Ministry of Defence has roundly denied the accusations, saying that troops removed dead bodies from the battlefield and that injuries were caused when they went in with bayonets. It has also insisted that it cannot open an investigation until official complaints are lodged with the local police – something that it may not be able to resist for much longer as this week complaints were laid before a judge.
Since last month’s incident, one of the largest British engagements since the war ended, Sadr’s Mehdi army has vowed to take revenge. Its volunteers, and there are many in Majar, have so far kept their word with chilling effect. Nightly mortar and rocket attacks on Abu Naji camp have forced soldiers to live and eat under protective cover while the local police force, perceived as part of the occupation, has come under regular fire. Majar’s police station was attacked with rocket propelled grenades while the New Journal was investigating the story in a battle that lasted most of the day and left several policemen wounded. Meanwhile British troops are still unable to patrol Majar, a standoff that has lasted since Americans sparked a Shia uprising by outlawing the firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr two months ago and took on his militia in the holy city of Najaf, north of Majar. The Prince of Wales Regiment, which controls the area, is now the most attacked British force in Iraq, according to the Ministry of Defence.
Majar al Kabir, the town where six Military Police were killed by a crowd a year ago, has long been a flashpoint. Now Sadr’s leaders in the area are threatening to turn it into a southern Iraqi version of Fallujah, the town near Baghdad where American forces recently waged an unsuccessful month long assault for control of the city.
Sayeed Jasim Al Moussawi, a Muqtada Sadr cleric in the area, said: “This was an attempt to terrify the people of Majar but we will strike back. For each martyr killed we will take the life of a British soldier. We will kill them on the road and in their camp. They have brought this revenge onto themselves by what they have done.”
The incident on May 14th began when local members of Sadr’s militia ambushed two Land Rovers belonging to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the Prince of Wales Regiment, at about 3pm as they drove past Um Aranab, a village close to Majar.Reinforcements were called but when Warrior armoured personnel carriers and Land Rovers arrived 45 minutes later they too were ambushed along the main road. In running battles outside the villages of Sadiyeh and Um Aranab the backup force took fire from Sadr’s militia dug into positions in fields along the main road. A two-hour battle left at least 27 Iraqis dead, including a 14 year old boy and a 79 year old man, and three soldiers seriously wounded.
That much is undisputed but what happens next is a matter of argument. The army insists troops removed dead bodies from the fields before sending them back for burial later. But that would have been unusual: it has not been army practice to remove dead bodies and hospitals say they have never before been asked to collect dead bodies from an army camp.
Twice over the following day ambulances were dispatched to Abu Naji from Amarah, the nearby main town, to pick up bodies. Doctors struggled to contain relatives and an angry crowd as they performed lightning examinations. Over three or four hours they noted numerous horrific injuries.
One death certificate, that of 21 year-old farm labourer Hamid Alami, notes that his genitalia had been sliced off. Doctors say they were returned in a plastic bag. Labourer Ali Jasim, 37, had bullet holes in his neck and face and large hole gouged in his face and an almost severed right hand. Crucially his eye had been gouged out – with no serious damage to his socket, implying careful removal at close quarters with a knife rather than as a result of a bayonet thrust, say doctors. His neck bore marks consistent with strangulation by a metal cable, they say. The body of Hamid Suweidi, a 20 year-old labourer, had been shot and bore “signs of torture” and “total facial mutilation”, the certificate records.
Ahmed Al Halfi, a 20 year-old labourer, had been shot several times, suffered deep cuts to his right
wrist and bore “signs of beating and torture all over his body”, according to the certificate. Labourer Abbas Al Mosani, 21, had been shot and his face mutilated. The time of death in all five cases was put at 11pm
on May 14th.
In two cases the time of death was recorded as 1pm on May 15th: Labourer Hussein Alumshenih, 14, was killed by several bullets in his face and body; Jasim Alumshenih, 25, also died at around 1pm after being shot in his head and body.
Photographs taken by doctors appear to back up their claims, showing badly mutilated bodies, including one that was soaked in fresh blood.
Director of Majar hospital Doctor Adil Saleh said his office received a call late at night on May 14th to pick up dead bodies from the camp.
“We sent ambulances and the soldiers handed over dead bodies in body bags. They had no papers and no explanation was given. We were just expected to carry out autopsies,” he said. “What we saw shocked me although I have been performing autopsies for many years. One body had an eye removed. There was almost no damage to the socket as if it had been a careful action. Another had been castrated and the penis was in a plastic bag. His neck had marks consistent with those that might be caused by a metal cable. One had its hand removed and several had showed signs of facial mutilation. Doctors also saw marks on another body that appeared to have been made by a dog and one whose arms and skull had been crushed. Another had fresh blood from what seemed like a recent wound.” He added: “As a medical examiner I have to ask important questions. How can we account for the injuries we saw? If they were dead on the battlefield then why were they removed? We have never before been asked to pick up dead bodies like that from the army camp. If they were injured then why were they not treated? How can we account for the fresh looking injuries? Now we need a full and independent examination to determine exactly what happened and when.”
Until now there have been few witnesses to the battle willing to speak. An ambulance driver called to the second shootout near Sadiyeh said he came under fire from troops and had to withdraw but that he saw more than a dozen Iraqis being cuffed and put into armoured personnel carriers before being driven off.
The only survivor who witnessed events from the battlefield was shot in the neck and is in hospital where doctors have diagnosed him a paraplegic. Farm mechanic Mohammed Ala Hassan, 30, was in the field near Um Aranab, the scene of the first shootout, with his cousin. Both were shot and they crawled into an irrigation ditch where his cousin later died. Hassan, who was yards from where the troops engaged the militia, said: “The soldiers were firing into the field in all directions. There were farmers who were harvesting their crops and I heard them screaming. I have never seen anything like this before.
“After a long time the soldiers began to move into the fields as if they were rounding people up. I saw one come close to where I was, a few metres away. He went to a man who was on the floor and the man raised his hand as if he was trying to ward off the soldier. But the soldier took out a knife and stabbed him. I saw him raise the knife and plunge it down into where the man was lying time and time again. Then I think I fainted because I can’t remember anymore. Just waking up in a hospital unable to move my body.”
The incident has also plunged the regional administration into a crisis. Warlord Karim Mahood, known as the Lord of the Marshes after his militia waged a low level war against Saddam’s troops for years, faces arrest for the murder of the police chief in an incident connected with the battle last month. Regional governing council member Mahood, who has been allowed to effectively control the Amarah region since the end of the war, appointed his family to positions of power including governor. But when the police chief demanded action be taken over the condition of the bodies handed back by the troops Mahood allegedly ordered his bodyguard – a family member – to shoot the police chief at point blank range.
Neither the British army nor the police have acted on the warrant, issued last month. But then that comes as no surprise as rank and file police officers, as well as the civic authorities, are widely perceived to be in Mahood’s pocket. With such widespread corruption it comes as no surprise that relatives have until now been reluctant to file complaints about the incident to the police.
All that changed last week when family members decided to appoint a lawyer to file for compensation. They are now planning to instruct British lawyers to act. Among those being considered are civil rights specialists Imran Khan and Louise Christian, both of whom have agreed to pursue abuse cases launched by other families in Basra.
A British army spokesman dismissed the claims as "ridiculous" stating “the British Army doesn't do things like that”. A Ministry of Defence spokesman denied any wrongdoing saying no prisoners were taken. The troops were forced to use bayonets and the injuries were caused by close quarter fighting, he said.
However the army would consider opening an investigation were complaints to be made to the Iraqi
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