British soldiers who forced a 15-year-old Iraqi boy into a canal and watched him drown after the 2003 invasion of the country have been condemned by a judge heading an inquiry into the incident.
Ahmed Jabbar Kareem Ali was one of a number of Iraqi civilians who were forced into canals and rivers as British troops struggled to contain widespread looting that was triggered by the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Sir George Newman, who is conducting a series of inquest-style hearings into Iraqi civilian deaths, said in a report into the death of Ali published on Friday that he was now likely to investigate why the practice spread, and examine the response of the military high command.
Sir John Chilcot’s report into the Iraq war disclosed that Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, who was then chief of the defence staff, issued no instructions on how to deal with an outbreak of lawlessness, despite the joint intelligence committee and the Defence Intelligence Staff warning that it was likely, and despite Tony Blair and the Ministry of Defence recognising the seriousness of the risk.
Ali and three other youths were detained while looting in Basra, forced into the back of a Warrior armoured fighting vehicle and driven five miles to the Shatt al-Basra canal, where they were forced into the water.
Newman said that all four youths “must have been terrified” and that Ali was “aggressively manhandled and assaulted” by the soldiers.
“His death ensued because he was forced by the soldiers to enter the canal, where, in the presence of the soldiers, he was seen to be in difficulty, and to go under the water,” he said.
The judge was scathing about the soldiers’ “manifest failure” to take any action to save the drowning boy’s life. “Notwithstanding the unlawful treatment involved in getting him into the water, his death could have been avoided because he could and should have been rescued after it became clear that he was floundering.
“It was a clumsy, ill-directed and bullying piece of conduct, engaged in without consideration of the risk of harm to which it could give rise.”
Four soldiers serving with the Irish and Coldstream Guards were subsequently charged with manslaughter but cleared at courts martial in 2006.
During his inquiry, Newman heard evidence from one of the soldiers, anonymised as SO18, that he could see Ali panicking as he began to slip under the water, but he then obeyed a command to get back into the Warrior. Another, giving evidence as SO16, said he had been getting undressed to get into the water to rescue Ali, when he heard the order. “We got back into the vehicle and that was that.”
An MoD spokesman said: “This was a grave incident for which we are extremely sorry. We are committed to investigating allegations of wrongdoing by UK forces and will use Sir George’s findings to learn lessons to help ensure nothing like this happens again.”
After the invasion, British troops had moved quickly from fighting for control of Basra and the surrounding region to attempting to deal with looters. As the occupying power in the south-east of the country, the British government was responsible under military law for the maintenance of law and order.
At brigade level, there was a debate about whether looters could be shot, or shots fired into the air, Newman reports, but it was decided that neither was permissible.
Initially, looters were detained and hooded, but this practice stopped after a hooded Iraqi died in custody. Soon, British troops found there were insufficient facilities to detain the large numbers of men and youths engaged in stealing.
“Different platoons developed their own method of ‘on-the-spot justice’,” Newman reports. One method was to drive Warriors over carts that were being used to transport stolen goods. Another was to use marker pens to write the words ‘Ali Baba’ on looters’ foreheads.
Newman’s inquiry was given a statement by a former captain in the Irish Guards who said that the practice of pushing looters into water “was absolutely known and understood” by British troops in Basra.
“Unless you were an idiot, you could not have missed it and the talk of looters and what we did with them was on everyone’s lips all of the time,” the former captain said. “Everyone knew, even in our HQ – of that l have absolutely no doubt. I’m not saying it happened a lot, but it happened. If someone said they didn’t know about the practice and what was happening I would unequivocally call them a liar.”
This former officer described how British troops were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who were determined to strip public spaces of anything of value: “There were swarms of them, like termites, they stole everything, stripped everything bare. On one occasion, I stopped an old man who was stealing a lamppost from a motorway. I’d never seen anything like it before.
“They were nice people, so you didn’t feel in extraordinary danger, but they stole everything.”
Chilcot reported that both before and during the invasion, the chief of joint operations, Lt Gen John Reith, pointed out to the chiefs of staff that they had issued no instructions about what to do in the event of an outbreak of lawlessness.
He concluded that while commanders on the ground were responsible for developing tactical measures, the chief of the defence staff and the chief of joint operations should have ensured that appropriate rules of engagement were issued.
Newman concludes that need to do something fell into a “procedurally formless vacuum”, and that it was left to company commanders and section commanders to improvise a response.