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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February, 2005, 16:04 GMT
Trial highlights camp's problems
By Paul Adams
BBC chief diplomatic correspondent

L/Cpl Cooley driving a forklift with an Iraqi tied to the fork
Twenty-two photos of alleged abuse were key to the court martial.
This was a case that was always bound to resonate well beyond the stark confines of the court martial centre in Osnabrueck, Germany.

The existence of photographs depicting the apparently casual abuse of Iraqi prisoners meant the story bore more than a passing resemblance to the similarly photographed events at Abu Ghraib.

Military and political leaders felt compelled to wade in, worried perhaps that official silence might be taken for a lack of concern about what happened at Camp Bread Basket, on 15 May, 2003.

But what, apart from the alleged abuses, captured on film, was the trial about?

At times, defence lawyers argued that it involved more than the specific incidents depicted.

This was, they suggested, about a military machine that had run out of control in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Summing up for Cpl Daniel Kenyon, Joseph Giret sought to focus the panel's attention, not on the abuses themselves, but on the wider context.

"Did you then go on to ask, well, actually, how can this have been allowed to happen?"

The three soldiers were accused of abusing Iraqis at the camp near the southern city of Basra

Certainly, regardless of the verdicts, questions will be asked about leadership at Camp Bread Basket and how it was that around 70 soldiers took part in an operation to round up looters - dubbed "Operation Ali Baba" - that was itself a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention, governing the treatment of civilians in wartime.

There is no doubt that looting was a serious problem in mid-May 2003.

Lt Col Nicholas Mercer, the army's senior legal officer in Iraq at the time, described it as "psychotic and epidemic."

When humanitarian aid started to arrive at Camp Bread Basket, it became a magnet for dozens of looters, many of whom made repeated forays into the camp's warehouses.

And it emerged during the trial that British soldiers were simply not prepared to deal with it.

To catch a thief

Scenes in Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the war suggested that this lack of preparedness was not limited to British forces.

Soldiers would catch thieves when they could. But at first, looting was not even on a list of specified offences for which civilians could be handed over to the military police.

Consequently, captured looters were invariably turned loose, only to return to the camp as soon as they could.

L/Cpl Mark Cooley aims a simulated punch at an Iraqi detainee
Confusion about how to treat the civilians permeated Camp Bread Basket

Understandably frustrated, the man in charge, Maj Dan Taylor, ordered a military-style operation to chase and round up looters, and to make them clear up the camp.

Not an unreasonable solution, perhaps, but one outlawed by the Geneva Convention, which bans putting civilians to work in this way, as well as collective punishment.

And here was a nagging question throughout - what did British soldiers understand their responsibilities to be?

Did they fully understand the rules governing their behaviour towards civilians - even ones they saw as little more than common criminals?

It became clear that while everyone had a basic knowledge of the dos and don'ts, vagueness about the specifics of the Geneva Conventions permeated the ranks.

Occupying powers

Even the then-commanding officer of 1RRF, Col David Paterson, had to admit that he had not realised at the time that Operation Ali Baba was illegal.

In his evidence, Lt Col Mercer spoke of "a general lack of understanding" in the military about being an occupying power.

At the time, he drew up an aide memoir for commanders. He said it was made "abundantly clear" that civilians should be treated "with utmost humanity and dignity at all times."

But he also admitted that the army was in an unusual position.

For the first time since the end of World War II, it was an occupying power.

None of this, of course, should have led to Iraqi civilians being forced to strip naked and simulate oral and anal sex.

But Cpl Kenyon, speaking in his defence, said there had been a breakdown in the chain of command at Camp Bread Basket, adding that the way the camp was run was "infected".

That infection, and ways to stop it happening in the future, must now be urgent questions for the Army to address.

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