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Blair: Government Only Recently Learned of UK Abuses in Iraq

Allegations that UK troops tortured Iraqi prisoners are rocking Britain. Prime Minister Blair apologized for the abuses Sunday, but the question remains as to how long the government has known about them.

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Abu Ghraib prison: UK and U.S. soldiers are purported to have abused Iraqi prisoners here

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday his government had only been aware of its troops' transgressions against Iraqi prisoners for the "last few days." But human rights organization Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said they had warned the British government months ago that Iraqi prisoners had been tortured and killed in UK custody.

Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said Monday Britain had already begun investigating allegations that soldiers killed a prisoner when it received a Red Cross report documenting UK and U.S. mistreatment in February.

"By the time the ICRC referred to the case in their February report, a thorough investigation was already underway," Hoon said in parliament Monday. He acknowledged that two investigations into abuse could soon result in prosecution.

The Red Cross report was published on the Wall Street Journal Web site Monday, and the Geneva-based organization confirmed its authenticity. It dealt mainly with U.S. soldiers mistreatment of POWs, and was, according to Pierre Kraehenbuehl, ICRC director of operations, a summary of what the organization had told U.S. officials between March and November 2003, Reuters reported.

Amnesty International said it had alerted the British government to its soldiers' abuses in a series of meetings throughout the past year.

Questions of authenticity

Hoon also cast doubt on the authenticity of pictures published in the Daily Mirror tabloid last week that kick-started the UK troops scandal. "There are strong indications that the vehicle in which the photographs were taken was not in Iraq during the relevant period," Hoon said. "Additional lines of inquiry are being pursued to corroborate this."

But Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan said previously that testimony the paper received from a soldier substantiated what the photos showed. Several soldiers claimed in interviews with the Mirror that their colleagues had abused Iraqi prisoners, even beating one to death.

The photographs are purported to show British troops urinating on and beating a prisoner in Basra.

Last week Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram told the House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament, that 33 cases of British soldiers causing civilian deaths, injuries or ill treatment had been investigated in Iraq.

Blair apologizes

Tony Blair said he was sorry for the incidents in an interview during a visit to France on Sunday.

"We've already made it absolutely clear we apologize deeply to anyone who's been mistreated by any of our soldiers. That is absolutely and totally unacceptable," Blair told France 3 television. "Those who are responsible for this -- if they have behaved in this appalling way -- they will be punished according to the Army disciplinary rules."

Blair, whose popularity has plummeted since the Iraq war, was already shaken by the accusations that U.S. soldiers humiliated Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Blair had rested his case for joining the United States in war against Saddam Hussein on the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the morality of fighting the Iraqi dictatorship.

The prime minister took a hard blow when no WMDs were found. Now reports that UK troops, too, might be culpable of abusing prisoners has tarnished Blair's appeal to morality. Even some of his supporters have called for the beleaguered prime minister's resignation.

British public opinion has been split on whether UK troops should remain in Iraq. A poll carried out for the Independent newspaper revealed that 55 percent of respondents want the country's soldiers to leave Iraq by June 30, the date set for transferring sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.


In the United States in April, the media began publicizing graphic images of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and abused by American soldiers. President Bush apologized for the incidents last week, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assumed responsibility for them. Although pressure has been growing on him to step down, he has thus far refused. Rumsfeld has since gotten a strong statement of support from President Bush. Seven U.S. soldiers have so far been charged with abusing prisoners in Iraq.

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