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Blair says abuse photos 'shocking'

Iraq images being seen as 'Britain's Abu Ghraib'


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An image allegedly showing Lance Corporal Mark Cooley simulating a punch to an Iraqi detainee.
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LONDON, England -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair described pictures of Iraqis apparently being abused by British soldiers as "shocking and appalling."

But he said the vast majority of the 65,000 British troops who had served in Iraq had done so with "distinction, courage and great honor."

Blair was quizzed at Prime Minister's Question Time Wednesday on the photographs, published by British newspapers under "Shame" and "Shock" headlines, which were being described as "Britain's Abu Ghraib" scandal.

Blair said the difference between democracy and tyranny was that in a democracy when "bad things happen" the perpetrators were held to account.

He said the photos should not be allowed to tarnish the good reputation -- fully deserved -- of British soldiers.

Opposition Conservative leader Michael Howard also branded the photographs "appalling" and said they bought shame on the country. But they did not reflect the true character of the majority of the British armed forces, he said.

As the storm grew, the head of the British army made a rare public statement as the photos were used as evidence at a court martial in Germany. (Court martial evidence)

Some of the front-page pictures showed naked Iraqi prisoners appearing to be forced to simulate anal and other sexual acts, while in another a soldier had his fist raised above a bound detainee who had a net over his torso.

"Brute Camp," read a headline in Britain's biggest selling tabloid, The Sun. "Shocking... appalling," said the Daily Mirror.

"Britain's Shame" read the headline in the Daily Mail.

The Times said the pictures would "provoke outrage in the Arab world and sully the reputation of the British Army."

Many predicted Blair, U.S. President George W. Bush's closest ally on Iraq, though currently well ahead in opinion polls, could be hit politically as he prepares to call a general election, widely expected in May.

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said the photos highlighted the issue of Iraq again just as the British political parties were moving into election mode.

"It has dominated the media," said Oakley. "There is deep worry about the image of the British army and deep worry about the effect on Iraqi elections."

He said that parallels were being drawn with abuse by U.S. solders at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail.

"Really there has been a smugness here -- a feeling that we the Brits don't do this kind of thing, our army is well enough disciplined -- but it has been a huge shock."

Army Reserve Spc. Charles Graner Jr., was last week sentenced to 10 years in a military prison for his role in abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib. (Full story)

Oakley added that at the time of the Abu Ghraib allegations, Blair was at the lowest point of his premiership -- having felt shame at photos of abuse by U.S. soildiers -- and that was the time aides said he thought of quitting.

The emergence of the British pictures prompted Britain's most senior general, Sir Mike Jackson, to make a rare public statement in which he said: "We condemn utterly all acts of abuse. Where there is evidence of abuse, this is immediately investigated."

Court martial

The pictures, released by prosecutors at the court martial at a British military base in Germany on Tuesday, were discovered when laboratory technicians phoned police after a soldier took them to be developed.

The three British soldiers pleaded not guilty to numerous counts of abuse, although one admitted assaulting a man.

Taken just weeks after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein, one of the 22 pictures showed an Iraqi man trussed up in a net and suspended from the prongs of a fork-lift truck.

Another showed a soldier apparently simulating a kick on a bound Iraqi lying in a patch of water.

Prosecutors say the soldiers carried out offences during an operation code named "Ali Baba" to stop looting at an aid food depot in the chaotic weeks after the U.S.-led invasion.

The trial is the latest in a series of hearings against U.S. and British soldiers after photographs of abuse by U.S. troops at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail emerged last year, sparking worldwide outrage.

Print and broadcast media across the Arab world also carried the latest photographs and analysts said they were sure to sully the reputation of the British army in Iraq..

Ahmed Versi, editor of the London-based Muslim News, told the UK's Press Association that said reports on Arabic channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya had made the abuse charges a talking point across the Gulf region.

He said: "The reaction in the Arab and Muslim world, and even here, has been of shock and also surprise because until very recently the British troops were considered to be much better in their conduct in Iraq than the Americans."

Michael Stent, managing editor of Gulf News, the biggest English language newspaper in the Middle East, told PA: "One of the particular points is that so far the American trials have been extremely lenient from where I sit. It will be very interesting to see how Britain reacts to similar allegations."

Anger

Some British newspapers said the case could put Britain's 9,000 troops in southern Iraq at risk by fueling anger as the country prepares to hold elections on January 30.

Some observers said the photos could help al Qaeda recruit.

"There will be such anger against the coalition, and against Britain in particular, that there is no way cooperation and goodwill can prevail," Tam Dalyell, a member of Blair's Labour Party, told Sky television.

That view was echoed in Baghdad.

"Now I'm starting to hate the British: they are worse than the Americans, they are dogs," Safaa Hadi, a 16-year old on a Baghdad street, told Reuters.

"They haven't been attacked much, so you can't explain the torture as revenge, it's just racism," said Hadi.

The mainly Shi'ite south has been more peaceful than central areas but guerrillas from the Sunni Arab minority and foreign Islamic militants have been stepping up bombings and assassinations to sabotage the ballot.


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