LONDON—Fourteen months after following the United States into war in Iraq, the British are struggling with an Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal of their own, and while the details and evidence are in dispute, the consequences could be as serious.
In the past week, the British have gone from horrified observers to full participants in a scandal that has topped newspapers and newscasts around the world. And while the breadth of accusations against the United States is greater, the British fear that their world image and the safety of their troops still in Iraq have both been endangered by recent revelations.
British soldiers have been accused of mistreating, and in at least 12 cases, killing, Iraqi prisoners. Perhaps the most horrific of the allegations is that a 17-year-old Iraqi boy, drowned after British troops beat him and then forced him to attempt to swim a river.
But as it was in the United States, once photos of the abused prisoners surfaced, the controversy took off. As the controversy roiled, however, some questioned whether the photos were doctored.
Londoner Patrick Traloar, who cursed and crumpled a newspaper while riding the London underground after reading stories about the alleged abuses, seemed to sum up a nation's discontent Wednesday: "I'd hoped the British, at least, were really working at winning the hearts and minds. I'm disappointed in us, and appalled at the Americans. It seems simple to me now. We've lost the war."
The scandal here finds a more willing, and outraged, audience. Millions of British opposed the war in the first place, and see the scandal as proof that it was doomed to go wrong. And, the scandal here quickly made its way into the courts. Wednesday afternoon, attorneys representing 12 Iraqis allegedly killed while under British guard filed suit, seeking both "financial accountability," and punishment.
"These test cases will have to decide whether the U.K. armed forces in occupation are subject to the Human Rights Act 1998," the Public Interest Lawyers Group announced at a press conference just before filing the cases in the high court. "If they are, as there has been a violation of right to life to those killed by soldiers acting on behalf of the U.K. government, there must, as a matter of law, be an independent inquiry."
The official government reaction was a terse statement: "We do not accept liability for the deaths."
While confirmed abuses would be a serious challenge to Tony Blair's government, national attention at the moment continues to be focused on a series of photographs that ran in Saturday's Daily Mirror. They allegedly show a British solider abusing an Iraqi prisoner in the back of a military truck over a period of eight hours. And the questions everyone is asking: "Are they real or fake?"
The British photos are allegedly of a member of the 300-year-old Queen's Lancashire Regiment beating, threatening and even urinating upon a young Iraqi man accused of theft.
The Daily Mirror, publisher of the photos, has said repeatedly this week that there is not "any reason to think that these photographs have been faked."
Comparing them to the photos of American guards allegedly abusing prisoners, The Guardian newspaper noted: "Where the American shots were in colour, muzzy, out of focus and badly composed, the pictures of the British soldier were taken in black and white, well put together, tightly cropped and of extremely high quality."
Experts questioned the style of truck and rifle, the cleanliness of the soldiers' uniform and detainee's body and T-shirt, and even the alleged urine stream.
Charles Heyman, an expert on military equipment and senior defense Analyst for Jane's, said the rifle and the truck are simply the wrong gear for units now in Iraq, causing him to think they were likely faked, perhaps at a military base in Britain.
Even if faked, however, he said the Arab world's angry response was very real, and that many who saw the photos and initially believed them true would never hear or believe that they were staged.
"Real or not, the damage is done," Heyman said. "The moderate Iraqis who had some trust in the Coalition, they're gone. People may well die as a result."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.