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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 June 2006, 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK
Army verdict throws up questions
By Paul Adams
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Guard outside court martial
The court's verdict has raised many questions
Quite apart from the unanswered aspects surrounding the death of a young Iraqi, yesterday's "not guilty" verdict throws up another series of questions.

Some touch on the conduct of British forces in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, while others concern the state of Britain's system of military justice.

Defence lawyers at the Colchester court martial argued that their clients had been, in the words of one, "hung out to dry" as a result of poor planning in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The same argument was made, forcefully, by the Army's senior legal officer for the invasion, who gave evidence during the trial.

"There was a total failure to plan for the occupation," said Lt Col Nicholas Mercer. "It was not foreseen that Iraq would implode to the extent that it did."

Soldiers frustrated

The argument was reminiscent of points made during the 2005 court martial of members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which resulted in the conviction of three soldiers.

The abuse of Iraqi looters at Camp Breadbasket, which was captured on film by one of the accused, took place during exactly the same transitional phase between war fighting and peace keeping.

Indeed, the two episodes took place in the same city, Basra, within a week of each other.

Significantly, both cases centred on the treatment of suspected looters, an area where there was clearly considerable confusion, with soldiers frustrated by their inability to control an epidemic of lawless behaviour in the war's aftermath.

Ahmed Jabber Kareem
Ahmed Jabber Kareem died in 2003 in a Basra canal

Within the military, there will clearly be relief that four soldiers have not been found guilty of manslaughter, something that would have brought shame on their regiments and further eroded public confidence in an already unpopular mission.

Some have questioned the wisdom of bringing high-profile prosecutions, which serve to demoralise the military.

In some cases, notably those that have involved the Office of the Attorney General, there have been allegations of political motivation, that soldiers are somehow being prosecuted to assuage public opinion.

Jerry Hayes, solicitor for Guardsman Martin McGing, went so far as to suggest that all British soldiers serving in Iraq would have been at risk had his client been convicted.

Cases need investigation

It is a somewhat far-fetched argument. To date, there has been only a handful of courts martial arising from incidents in Iraq, and very few convictions.

The Ministry of Defence quite rightly points out that British soldiers are not above the law and that all serious cases have to be investigated and, in some cases, prosecuted.

But while the soldiers have their supporters, there is an equally vociferous camp that says the military should not be responsible for investigating itself.

The four cleared soldiers (from left): Martin McGing, Carle Selman, James Cook, and Joseph McLeary
Critics say the army should not be in charge of investigations

This camp, which includes a number of prominent human rights lawyers, argues a series of cases that have resulted in acquittals, or simply been dropped for lack of evidence, shows the Army Prosecuting Authority is simply not up to the job and the court martial system needs a radical overhaul.

The British Army, some argue, is getting away with murder in Iraq - civilian courts should be responsible for getting at the truth.

But such a move is unlikely. Last December's Armed Forces Bill contained proposals for modernising military criminal justice but made it clear that this was still the preferred mechanism.

Don Touhig, then Under Secretary of State at the MoD, insisted that "we need a separate system of law for the armed forces."

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