Monday, May 10, 2004

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, under fire in Parliament for “incompetence and failure,” acknowledged yesterday it was investigating eight soldiers for suspected prisoner abuse, including at least one killing.

But the pictures that dragged British troops into the abuse row have turned out to be fake, the government contended.

In a politically embarrassing admission, authorities conceded that a highly critical report from the International Committee of the Red Cross citing three cases of suspected abuse had never reached the prime minister or Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon.

Mr. Hoon told the House of Commons in a rowdy debate that the military had considered it unnecessary to refer the matter up the chain of command because the cases were already being investigated. That claim was greeted with derision by the Conservative Party opposition.

Mr. Hoon also told Parliament the army had ordered an end to the placing of hoods over the heads of Iraqis when they were arrested or while in detention or under interrogation.

Outside, a handful of antiwar demonstrators held up posters such as, “You ain’t nothing but a Hoon dog.”

The prisoner furor in the United States and Britain have further undermined public confidence in the nation’s military role in Iraq. A survey published yesterday in the Independent showed 55 percent of Britons wanting a complete pullout of forces by the end of next month, when sovereignty is due to be handed back to Iraqis.

Only 38 percent were in favor of maintaining an indefinite troop presence, with the rest listed as unsure.

But there was some good news for the government as it struggled to contain the scandal.

Mr. Hoon announced that two published photographs said to show British soldiers abusing an Iraqi prisoner in Basra had not been taken in Iraq. Investigators found that the type of truck in which the prisoner was crouching had not been deployed in Iraq at the relevant time, he said.

One picture showed a soldier urinating on the hooded face of an Iraqi on the back of a truck, and the other a soldier thrusting the butt of a rifle into the hooded prisoner’s private parts.

The mass-circulation Mirror newspaper, which published the photos a day after dramatic photos of abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison became public, should “explain why they chose to perpetrate such a hoax,” Mr. Hoon told Channel 4 television news.

The newspaper has not denied reports that it paid soldiers more than $20,000 for the pictures, but has since vigorously defended their authenticity.

The Mirror insisted last night that Mr, Hoon had not “proved” their photos to be fake.

Regardless of the photos’ veracity, other charges of prisoner abuse remain.

A campaigning British lawyer brings a case to the High Court in London today in which he claims British forces wrongfully killed 20 persons during months of law-enforcement activities in southern Iraq.

Amnesty International, which also had sent critical reports to the British forces over suspected abuses during British patrols, called for an independent inquiry.

Mr. Blair told a press conference yesterday that the Red Cross report “does not say there is systematic abuse by British soldiers.”

But Conservative defense spokesman Nicholas Soames questioned whether British soldiers had been given the necessary training for handling prisoners and dealing with unrest.

By not ensuring that abuses were stamped out, he said, the government had created a situation that “invites our enemies to do the same and increases our existing dangers.”

Mr. Soames also found it shocking that Mr. Hoon had not personally read the ICRC report until a week ago.

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