Submitted by Irfan Chowdhury
A British soldier guards Iraqi prisoners in 2004 (the Al-Sweady Inquiry/PA).
On 11 May 2003, 18-year-old Nadheem Abdullah was travelling home in a taxi after going out to the market in Maysan Province, southeastern Iraq. Before Abdullah reached his home, British soldiers in the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, who were out on patrol in three separate military vehicles, began chasing the taxi. Athar Finjan, who was driving the taxi, pulled over to the side of the road. One of the military vehicles then stopped behind the parked taxi, while the other two vehicles stopped in front of the taxi to prevent it from moving on. A group of British soldiers in one of the vehicles stepped out, approached the taxi and ordered the passengers out, in an attempt to carry out a stop-and-search procedure, which the British Army was routinely subjecting Iraqis to at the time.
According to Sir George Newman, who authored an official British government report on this incident in 2015, the soldiers’ demand to the passengers “was likely to have been conveyed by physical movement of the arms, raised voices and shouting of the words ‘Ali Baba’. Rifles would have been pointed at the occupants”. Passengers in the back of the taxi, including women, then stepped out from the taxi, while Abdullah and Finjan, who were in the front of the taxi, appeared hesitant to step out. As Newman notes, “It is not likely that [Abdullah and Finjan] were given long to comply”. The soldiers then forcibly pulled Abdullah and Finjan out of the taxi. Newman concludes that during the soldiers’ removal of the two men from the taxi, “it is likely that the force would have caused some injury, at the least bruising, if not more”. The soldiers then attempted to force both men to lie on the ground; Finjan was beaten and pushed to the ground, but Abdullah continued to resist. As documented in Newman’s report, when Abdullah tried to resist being forced onto the ground, the soldiers punched him in the back, kicked him, hit him with a helmet and beat him with a rifle butt. At some point, one or more of the soldiers hit Abdullah with great force on the left side of his head, possibly with a helmet or rifle butt. Newman notes that in terms of the severity of the blow inflicted on the side of Abdullah’s head, “the evidence points to it being sufficient for it to cause a ruptured or fractured skull, causing a brain haemorrhage from which he died”
Newman notes the following: “The blow(s) did not cause instant death, but did cause serious symptoms within a short time. In the course of being taken by a motor vehicle to a medical clinic, he was in and out of consciousness, was vomiting, and was bleeding from his mouth”. During his ordeal at the hands of the soldiers, Abdullah “was also subjected to other physical force and attack which caused less serious and less visible injury”, first when he was removed from the vehicle, then when he was forced onto the ground, and again when he was on the ground and tried to get up again. One of the injuries he sustained was a bleeding finger, which Newman observes “is consistent with the deceased having attempted to defend himself from a blow or blows”. Newman concludes the following with regards to the violence endured by Abdullah and Finjan: “I have found no evidence, and nor was it suggested, that the degree of force which was used to cause the fatal injury was necessary to secure compliance by the deceased with the demands of the soldiers. It was more violent than was required in the circumstances. There is some evidence that Mr Abdullah may have acted so as to attempt to resist the soldiers’ demands, but no evidence that he either levelled, or attempted to level, any blow at the soldiers. Neither the actions of Mr Abdullah nor the driver, Athar Finjan, constituted a direct threat to the soldiers, nor were they seen to be a direct threat”.
At some point during this incident, a dog arrived on the scene and was shot dead by one of the soldiers. Newman concludes that "There is no evidence that the dog which was shot attempted to attack the soldiers”. While Abdullah and Finjan were being beaten and forced onto the ground, Finjan’s sister, Dalal, came out of her house when she saw what was going on, and alleges that she tried to intervene and was beaten by the soldiers. With regards to this allegation, Newman notes that “there is forensic evidence that blood from a female was present on the boots taken from SO03 [one of the soldiers]”. Dr Anthony Brian Larkin, a forensic scientist who reviewed the blood in question, “expressed the view that the nature and distribution of the blood spots was what he would expect to see had the boots been involved in kicking a bleeding female when she was close to the ground”.
Dalal’s husband, Issa Salas, came out of his house when the soldiers left, and upon doing so, he found both Athar Finjan and Nadheem Abdullah lying unconscious on the ground. He describes Abdullah’s condition as follows: “His face was covered with wounds and bruises. One of his eyes was swollen and blood was coming out of his mouth”. Salas then states: “With some of the locals in the village I carried Nadheem into my car and we took him to his family in the nearby village of Al Ezz River”. Salas gives the following account of what happened after he dropped Abdullah off with his family at their home: “His family washed his face before moving him so that he could regain his consciousness, but he continued to point to his head behind his neck. His family attempted to talk with him, but he would not answer. They asked for my help to move him to Al U’Zayra for treatment”.
Abdullah’s older brother, Ali Abdullah Manea, describes what happened when Abdullah was brought home: “I recall Nadheem being brought home with Kareema in Issa’s car. He was injured and was carried to the outside of our house. He was unconscious and did not reply when spoken to. There was a little blood coming from his little finger. There was bruising and swelling on his head and on the sides of his face. When Nadheem tried to bring his head up it would flop on either side. He was groaning”. Abdullah’s younger brother, Fahad Abdullah Manea, who was only 15-years-old at the time of this incident, gives the following account of Abdullah’s condition: “He was unable to speak and in a difficult condition. He only looked at us and moved his head. We asked him, ‘What happened to you?’, but he could not speak”. Abdullah’s mother, Jusm Badar, similarly recalls how after Abdullah was brought inside from Salas’s car using a blanket, he could not speak and was barely conscious: “All he could do was open and shut his eyes. He was bleeding from a wound on the small finger of his left hand. Most of his face was swollen and his head was battered, although I could not see any external bleeding. He was throwing up and bleeding out of his mouth while lying on his back and when he turned to his side blood poured out of his mouth”.
Abdullah was then taken to the surgery of Dr Abdul Khaliq, who was then the hospital director in the nearby town of Qal'at Saleh. Dr Abdul Khaliq recalls that there was bruising on Abdullah’s face and head, with a particularly large bruise on the side of his head, and that there was blood in Abdullah’s vomit. Dr Abdul Khaliq decided that Abdullah must be immediately transferred to another hospital, because his situation was critical. Shortly afterwards, Abdullah was declared dead.
His death certificate records the cause of death as “A severe blow to the head which caused brain haemorrhage”. In 2005, The Independent interviewed members of Abdullah's family. Ali Abdullah Manea stated: "Our family has not recovered from what has happened to Nadhem. Our mother cries every day. We do not know what is happening and we do not know about this court case. We have not been offered any compensation for our brother's death and no one has explained why it happened”. Jusm Badar stated: “My son was a good boy and he was not involved in any kind of politics. My life has been destroyed by this. Why did this happen?”.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) released a report on British war crimes in Iraq on 9 December 2020, which concluded that Abdullah was a victim of the war crime of unlawful killing/murder by British soldiers. Despite the ICC’s conclusion and the findings of Sir George Newman, none of the soldiers involved in Abdullah’s murder have been convicted. The ICC report notes that Britain’s Royal Military Police (RMP) opened an investigation into this incident in 2003, after which seven soldiers were charged with murder. At a court martial on 3 November 2005, the Judge Advocate concluded that there was not enough evidence to rule on the individual responsibility of each defendant. The Judge Advocate criticised the RMP’s investigation as “inadequate”, with investigators responsible for “serious omissions”, such as not searching for records of hospital admissions or burials. The accused soldiers at the court martial were Corporal Scott Evans (32), Private Bill Nerney (24), Private Samuel May (25), Private Morne Vosloo (26), and former Privates Daniel Harding (25), Roberto Di-Gregorio (24) and Scott Jackson (26).
In 2014, Britain’s High Court ruled that the British government had to launch an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Iraqis in British military custody. Subsequently, the Iraq Fatality Investigations (IFI) was launched, for which Sir George Newman was responsible between 2014 and 2019, and it was in this context that he investigated the circumstances surrounding Abdullah's death. However, upon launching the IFI, Britain’s then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, announced that “no prosecutions will result”. The ICC concluded that there are at least six other cases wherein Iraqis were victims of unlawful killing/murder by British soldiers, and only one of these cases resulted in one soldier being convicted of a war crime, for which he was jailed for one year.
Western crimes in Iraq are by no means a thing of the past; in June of this year, America carried out airstrikes in Iraq that murdered four Iraqis in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), who were defending the border area between Iraq and Syria from incursions by ISIS. The PMF is a state-sponsored umbrella of multi-ethnic and multi-religious paramilitaries that played an instrumental role in defeating ISIS in 2017, and the Iraqi government denounced the American bombing as an illegal violation of Iraqi sovereignty. One of the murdered PMF fighters was from the Shabak ethnic minority, which has been subjected to genocidal violence by ISIS. Thus, the murder of Nadheem Abdullah by British soldiers in 2003 should be viewed in the context of a long history of atrocities carried out by Western militaries in Iraq, beginning in 1920 when Britain used chemical weapons to crush an Iraqi rebellion against British rule (which Winston Churchill, who was then head of Britain’s War Office, famously advocated), and leading up to the present day.
Irfan Chowdhury is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on Westernimperialism in the Middle East. He has been published in The Iranian, Mondoweiss, Peace News, Hastings In Focus, The Palestine Chronicle, Roar News and Bella Caledonia, and is now at Substack. His Twitter handle is @irfan_c98
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Iraq Now.