British army acted quickly on Iraq abuses, official says


LONDON - Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told Parliament yesterday that the British military had acted swiftly to investigate alleged mistreatment of prisoners by its forces in Iraq and that the military was close to bringing charges in two cases of brutality by British soldiers.

Hoon also revealed that in September, in response to complaints raised last summer by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the British army had stopped its practice of putting hoods on Iraqi prisoners.

When one lawmaker pointed out that the British army had forsworn the use of hoods for years and then asked, "When did the policy change?" Hoon replied, "The policy did not change, and it was stopped."

Speaking a day after Prime Minister Tony Blair issued the first British apology to Iraqis who suffered mistreatment or degradation during the yearlong military campaign, Hoon officially challenged for the first time the authenticity of a series of photographs purporting to show a hooded Iraqi prisoner being beaten with rifle butts and urinated on. The photos appeared May 1 in The Daily Mirror.

The special investigations branch of the Royal Military Police has concluded that "there are strong indications that the vehicle in which the photographs were taken was not in Iraq during the relevant period," Hoon told the House of Commons.

The editors of The Mirror immediately issued a lengthy statement defending their decision to publish the photos and pointed out that Hoon had not denied that the purported incident had occurred.

Speaking of criminal cases that have been opened into civilian deaths in Iraq, Hoon said, "I can confirm today that two cases have reached an advanced stage with decisions on prosecutions pending." One such case is said to involve the beating death in September of Bahar Musa, a clerk at the Basra Hotel, who was brutalized during an all-night interrogation by soldiers in the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, British officials have said.

As Blair and senior members of his government were engaged in another day of damage control in the unfolding political crisis, senior figures in Parliament questioned why reports that laid out the full scope of brutality occurring in the American zone were held in secret by British officials.

With the publication yesterday of a February Red Cross report on abuses occurring in prisons run by the British and the Americans, British lawmakers demanded to know why the report was withheld for so long and why senior ministers, including Blair, were not informed of its contents.

Hoon said that by the time the Red Cross report arrived in London in February, British commanders were aware of its central concerns and had moved to make policy changes or conduct criminal investigations.

At least four members of Parliament demanded to know why British military officials had not expressed their opposition to American commanders after learning from the Red Cross of the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Robin Cooke, the former foreign secretary, wanted to know "what concerns were expressed to the United States" about whether British officers could accept acts of brutality by another member of the coalition.

Hoon refused to answer any question that could be construed as criticism of the conduct of American forces.

Taking his lead from Blair, who issued a formal British apology Sunday during a television interview in France, Hoon said yesterday, "On behalf of the British government, we unreservedly apologize to any Iraqis where the evidence shows that they have been mistreated."

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