by Sanjay Suri
(IPS) LONDON -- The British army has been killing civilians in areas of southern Iraq that it controls, says a report by Amnesty International.
The report follows widespread news of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops. While reports of such abuse have been overshadowed by photographs of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, the British government too faces a growing scandal over the conduct of its soldiers.
Britain has had its own shocking photographs of abuse of prisoners by soldiers. Several of these photographs have been carried in the Daily Mirror newspaper. The Ministry of Defense says it is investigating the authenticity of the photographs.
The government was further put in a spot after it was revealed that the Red Cross had sent in a report in March pointing out grave violations against civilians and abuse of prisoners. A government spokesman said action was taken after receiving the reports, but declined to say what action.
The new reports have shattered a myth that some British media had been building up that British forces were acting with far more restraint than U.S. forces and were being more respectful to the Iraqi population.
The Amnesty report now points towards shooting of civilians. In several cases it documents letters written by British officers in which they acknowledge that troops killed civilians when there was no apparent threat from the victims to themselves or to others.
Among those killed in such firing was an eight-year-old girl and a guest at a wedding celebration, the Amnesty report says.
"Far from being liberated, the people of Iraq continue to live in fear and insecurity," Amnesty International said.
"Many cases of civilian killings by UK armed forces have not even been investigated," the Amnesty report says. "Investigations by the Royal Military Police (RMP) have been secretive, with families given little or no information about their progress."
Amnesty says that "instead of the UK armed forces deciding whether to investigate themselves when people are killed, there must be a full, impartial and civilian-led investigation into all allegations of killings by UK troops."
The report 'Killings of Civilians in Basra and al-'Amara' is based on research carried out by Amnesty International delegates in February and March of this year. The organization says it interviewed families of the deceased and eyewitnesses to the killings, Iraqi police officers and Coalition Provisional Authority officials responsible for law and order.
The report details numerous killings by UK armed forces and armed groups.
An army spokesman said that "there are a number of investigations into allegations of mistreatment under way, but until we see the report we cannot really comment in detail."
One such case is that of eight-year-old Hanan Saleh Matrud. The British army had claimed that she may have been hit accidentally by a warning shot. But according to Amnesty, an eyewitness said that Hanan was killed when a soldier aimed and fired a shot at her from around 60 metres away.
An army spokesman has said the eyewitness statement "has not been proven but accepted as a possibility."
The Ministry of Defense has acknowledged that British forces have been involved in the killing of 37 civilians since May 1 last year. It acknowledges also that this figure is not comprehensive as it is sometimes impossible for soldiers to confirm the number of casualties in a specific incident.
In January this year Amnesty says Ghanem Kadhem Kati, a 22-year-old unarmed man, was reportedly shot in the back outside his front door while celebrating a family wedding. British soldiers fired five shots at him from 50 yards away, despite reportedly being told by a neighbour not to fire and that the earlier shots were in celebration.
An army investigation is ongoing, but relatives have not been informed about the procedures for claiming compensation, says Amnesty.
"Families are frequently given no information on how to lodge a compensation claim for the killing of their relatives," the report says. "In some cases they are given wrong information, including that responsibility for compensation would rest with a new Iraqi government."
An Area Claims Officer, to whom claims must be submitted, is situated in an area difficult to access for ordinary civilians [Basra airport] and there is little explanatory information provided on the claims process in English or in Arabic, Amnesty says. "As a result, people interviewed had little confidence in the compensation system."
In several cases British officers have written to families. Amnesty reproduces the following letter sent to the Beni Skein group on August 17 last year. The letter is signed by Lieutenant Colonel Ciaran Griffin. It states:
"On the night of 4 August 2003 a patrol from the 1st Battalion The King's Regiment observed a lot of shooting from the area of Al Majdiyah and believed that there was a dangerous gun battle taking place. They drove to the edge of the village and went in on foot to investigate. The night was very dark, as there was no electricity for street lighting and the moon had set. The patrol encountered two men, who appeared to be armed and a direct threat to their lives, so they opened fire and killed them.
"In retrospect it became clear that the heavy shooting in Al Majdiyah was in sympathy for the funeral of a local man and that the two men who were shot by the British patrol had not intended to attack anyone. We greatly regret the deaths of Hasim Jumah Gattah and Abed Abdul-Kareem Hassan and we hope to work with the Ben Skein and all other tribes to avoid this type of misunderstanding in the future."
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