Britain's Atrocities in Iraq

Politics Sep 06, 2021 9 min read

An examination of three horrific cases that have been largely swept under the rug.

Author: Irfan Chowdhury

British soldiers on patrol in Basra in April 2007. The graffiti expresses support for the insurgent group Jaysh al-Mahdi, which was besieging British bases at the time (AFP).

Warning: this article contains graphic content involving prisoner abuse and torture, including sexual assault, which readers may find distressing.

Camp Breadbasket

Camp Breadbasket was a humanitarian aid camp on the outskirts of Basra that was set up by the British Army after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It stored various humanitarian supplies that were used for local distribution, and as such it became a frequent target of looting by locals. On 15 May 2003, the commanding officer at the camp decided to punish any Iraqis who were found looting by ordering his men to capture them and force them to carry out manual labour around the facility. After 20 Iraqis were captured that morning, the soldiers decided to improvise their own forms of punishment. Various photographs documenting the torture of these prisoners were made public in 2005, but they have since faded from public consciousness, and even at the time they did not have the impact that similar photographs from America’s Abu Ghraib prison had (which also documented the torture of Iraqi prisoners using similar techniques; in particular, sexual humiliation).

The following quote is extracted from a report by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on British war crimes in Iraq, which was published on 8 December 2020; it details a number of serious abuses that British soldiers committed against Iraqi prisoners at Camp Breadbasket:

“In one well-known example, the information available indicates that members of UK armed forces committed the war crime of torture and inhuman/cruel treatment against at least 7 Iraqi victims detained on suspicion of looting at Camp Breadbasket, near Basra, on 15 May 2003. According to the information available, the victims were subjected to stress positions, severe beatings, and sexual violence. The ‘Camp Breadbasket incident’ was widely reported on after photos depicting detainee abuse were released to the media in January 2005. The photographs documented Iraqis being forced to simulate oral and anal sex, as well as a man tied up in a cargo net and suspended from a forklift truck. The Victim Statement of PIL 22 similarly depicts treatment involving protracted humiliation and continuous beating with fists, boots, sticks and aerials. As set out below, one victim was reportedly subjected to rape”.

These are some of the less graphic photographs in question:

According to the ICC report, these abuses “only came to light when one of the soldiers involved in taking trophy photographs had the photographs developed in a civilian shop and the shop assistant reported the conduct to civilian police, who made an arrest”. In total, five different soldiers took 22 photographs documenting the torture of prisoners at Camp Breadbasket.

The ICC report describes the sexual violence that was inflicted on prisoners at Camp Breadbasket as follows:

“The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that members of UK armed forces committed the war crimes of other forms of sexual violence in one incident against, at a minimum, seven detainees at Camp Breadbasket in May 2003 who were also victims of torture as described above, and furthermore subjected one of those detainees to rape. According to the detailed account of one victim, PIL 16, the violence started when he entered a room where one British soldier “was performing oral sex on” another soldier. PIL 16 was allegedly forced to the floor under the threat of a knife, brutally undressed, and raped by the two soldiers in turn. After the rape, the victim alleges that the soldiers started to punch him and cut his arms with the knife. He was then taken to the hospital and subsequently released. PIL 16 complained that his anus bled for a week and that he suffered from panic attacks as a result of the incident”.

“As noted earlier, photographs widely circulated in the media at the time also showed other Iraqis being forced to simulate oral and anal sexual intercourse. The level of severity of such conduct is comparable in gravity to conduct constituting the war crime of “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” under article 8(2)(c)(ii) of the Statute. The sexual and gender-based component of the conduct just described, nonetheless, is more accurately reflected as the crime of “other forms of sexual violence”, given the nature of the conduct and its context, its manner of commission, and impact. Moreover, the conduct appears to have been inflicted with the specific intention to sexually humiliate the detainees concerned, in order to cause offence, distress, and shame”.

“There is a reasonable basis to believe that the acts of rape and/or other forms of sexual violence set out in this section occurred in a coercive environment, in which the detainees experienced fear of violence, duress, and psychological oppression. Furthermore, these acts occurred in circumstances that negated the detainee’s ability to consent, and in some instances by force, when the detainee was restrained in a vulnerable position”.

No one has been prosecuted for the aforementioned rape, despite the fact that the ICC concluded that that there is a reasonable basis to believe that it occurred. The victim was 18-years-old at the time, and he tried to commit suicide after the incident.

His witness statement from 2011 recounts how he walked in on the two soldiers, after which one of them pulled him into the room and punched him in the face, while the other soldier blocked the exit. This is his description of his subsequent ordeal: “The man who had punched me was stronger than me, he grabbed me by the neck and kicked my legs from under me and I fell to the floor. I fell on my back. He took out a knife and held it against my neck… I was terrified that they were going to kill me at this point. The other soldier started to rip my trousers down… I started screaming. He then pulled my underwear down. All this time the other man was holding me down and putting the knife against my throat. They then flipped me on to my stomach”. He states that both soldiers then took it in turns to rape him, before slashing him with the knife, leaving him in “unbearable” agony. When he left the room, other soldiers helped him to get medical attention for the knife wounds.

Only three British soldiers who were involved in abuses at Camp Breadbasket were jailed following a court martial in 2005: L/Cpl Mark Cooley, 25, received a two year sentence; Cpl Daniel Kenyon, 33, received an 18 month sentence; and L/Cpl Darren Larkin, 30, received a 140 day sentence.

The Independent revealed in 2005 that family members of the prisoners who were being held at Camp Breadbasket were brutally beaten by British soldiers when they showed up at the facility to ask about their loved ones.

There is substantial evidence that torture was systematically used by British soldiers against Iraqi prisoners. The Independent reported on 20 January 2005: “The abuse of Iraqi civilians by British troops was more widespread than the torture and sexual humiliation allegedly carried out by three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers [at Camp Breadbasket], a court martial was told yesterday. An Army Lieutenant Colonel revealed prisoner abuse had become so frequent in British-occupied Iraq that he had been forced to issue specific orders insisting soldiers should not assault civilians and that they should be treated "with humanity and dignity at all times”’. An investigation by BBC Panorama in 2019 unearthed several cases of torture carried out by British soldiers in Iraq which the government had covered up (including cases of prisoners being tortured to death). The ICC report notes “the wider body of findings by other public authorities and institutions in the UK that hundreds of Iraqi detainees were subjected to conditions of detention and practices which amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment”, and recognises that its own findings “may not be fully representative of the overall scale of the victimisation”.

The Baha Mousa Case

The most notorious case outside of Camp Breadbasket was that of Baha Mousa, a civilian hotel receptionist and father of two who was tortured to death by British soldiers at a military base in Basra called Battle Group Main. Mousa and several other civilians were arrested by members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment on suspicion of involvement in the insurgency on 14 September 2003, and were then taken to Battle Group Main, where they endured horrific torture for the next 36 hours. A report by the human rights organisation Redress summarises what happened as follows: “[The prisoners] were repeatedly beaten by being kicked and punched when handcuffed and hooded, made to maintain stress positions for long periods of time, deprived of sleep, continually shouted at and generally abused in temperatures rising to almost 60 degrees centigrade. During most of this time the detainees were hooded with one or two Hessian sacks”. This account is confirmed in the ICC report.

The precise cause of Mousa’s death was estimated to be postural asphyxia, but evidence showed that he had sustained at least 93 separate injuries, including broken ribs, bruised and swollen lips, and a broken nose. The doctor who performed the post mortem testified at the 2007 court martial of the soldiers involved in Mousa’s torture: “[I]f you suffer a large number of injuries then it is bound to take its effect. They hurt and if you are in pain then you do not react terribly well. And he had some broken ribs which would be very painful, he had a broken nose which would be very painful so he would have that physiological - or pathological and physiological effect of the pain… We do not understand the complete mechanisms of postural asphyxia but anything that adversely affects breathing or heart function it could be argued will adversely affect people who are struggling to breathe because of the position that they are in”.

The Redress report states: “The picture is of a man dying in agony because he couldn’t breathe properly as he was held to the ground face-down with multiple injuries, including broken ribs”.

The Redress report also includes the following testimony from the court martial: “One witness, Mr Baha Malki, told the court martial how he saw a soldier stamping on Baha Mousa’s head while lying on the floor in the hotel reception, and heard him screaming in pain. All the detainees were verbally abused at the hotel with crude sexual expletives and insults according to the same witness, and the hooding and stressing began soon after they arrived at the TDF [Temporary Detention Facility]. Detainees were punched and kicked when unable to maintain stress positions, and these attacks increased during the Sunday night and intensified on the Monday. Mr Malki described other abuse including being put in a headlock, hit with an iron bar, being forced along with the others to “dance like Michael Jackson”, and of photographs being taken while they were being punched”.

Seven soldiers were prosecuted for Mousa’s death; only one, Corporal Donald Payne, was found guilty of inhumane treatment (although he was cleared of manslaughter and perverting the course of justice). He was jailed for one year. The other six soldiers were cleared of all charges.

The following video documents some of the abuse that Mousa and other Iraqi civilians endured at the hands of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment:

The Amarah Protests

On 5 April 2004, protests against the Governor of Maysan Province took place in Amarah. British soldiers policed the protests and ultimately broke them up. In response, protesters threw stones at the soldiers, to which the soldiers reacted by firing rubber bullets into the crowd and charging protesters in order to clear the area around the Governor’s palace. Soldiers then captured four civilians from the crowd of protesters, including at least two children, and dragged them into a nearby military compound. What happened next is documented in the ICC report:

“On 12 February 2006, the now-defunct UK newspaper ‘News of the World’ released still images from a video footage reportedly provided by a whistle-blower depicting British soldiers assaulting Iraqi civilians in April 2004 in Al-Amarah, Iraq. The MoD confirmed it had opened an urgent Royal Military Police (“RMP”) investigation into the conduct shown in the videotape. It appeared that four Iraqi civilians, including at least two teenagers, had been snatched from a rioting crowd and brought inside a military compound where they were assaulted. According to the ‘News of the World’ report, the video footage depicted soldiers “beating [the captured teenagers] senseless with vicious blows from batons, boots and fists” before “what appears to be an officer” delivered a “full-force kick in the genitals of a cringing lad pinned to the ground” and a cameraman delivered a “commentary urging his mates on…”. According to the UK army press release on the incident, the video footage shows an alleged kick to the body of a deceased Iraqi civilian. Although no official version of the video has been published to date, the Office reviewed open source footage available online with the stamp ‘News of the World’ that was consistent with the details in the media report”.

The video was given to the News of the World by an anonymous whistleblower within the British Army, who was quoted as saying: “These Iraqis were just kids. Most haven't even got shoes on”. One of the most disturbing aspects of the video is the delighted commentary that accompanies it; the soldier filming the incident can be heard saying: “Oh yes! Oh yes! You're gonna get it. Yes, naughty little boys. You little fuckers, you little fuckers. Die. Ha ha”. It is available to view here:

Despite the existence of this video, and the ICC’s conclusion that it is authentic, no one has been prosecuted for torturing these civilians.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of IraqNow.

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