Public distrust deepens over British military role in Iraq

Tony Blair weighs whether to boost forces in Iraq, while troops deal with photos of alleged abuse of Iraqi POWs.

The images have already become iconic, recognizable the world over: a coalition soldier, an Iraqi prisoner, and every indication of an act of wretched maltreatment.

But in this case, these are not Americans, but British soldiers pictured in a number of poses suggestive of sickening abuse toward POWs in the British-run south of Iraq. Though serious doubts remain about their provenance and authenticity, the images have provoked tumult in Britain at a delicate time, with the government mulling a considerable expansion in Iraq and the public still skeptical about the campaign.

They have also unsettled the 8,700-strong force in Basra who had worked hard to win over local hearts and minds, only to see trust undermined by the exposé that appeared in the Daily Mirror newspaper. "Damage has been done," says one defense ministry officer who has served in the Basra contingent. "There is a feeling among the Arab population that these pictures are similar to acts carried out by the Baathist regime. It will have hit morale."

The scandal is untimely, coinciding with an imminent decision about Britain's role in Iraq. Washington wants a British force to take over the vacuum left by departing Spanish troops around Najaf, and reports suggest the Army could deploy hundreds more British troops in weeks.

Yet boosting troop levels might not play well with a sharply divided public. Even though some experts are convinced the pictures are a hoax, it doesn't mean that British servicemen in Iraq are beyond reproach, both by the military and the public at large.

Iraq is rapidly turning into Britain's most serious military venture since the Falklands, more than 20 years ago. More than 250 troops were killed then, but survivors came home to a hero's welcome. A tough aspect of the Iraq campaign is that soldiers returning on leave or after their six-month tour get little public recognition.

Even deaths and injuries are getting less play in the press, which now generally focuses on bad news from Iraq. Officers say that the "tribal" nature of the Army and its robust support network helps reintegrate returning servicemen, though there is a degree of frustration at the negative public perception.

"Soldiers are aware that they might not have the support of the public, but [the public] can't see what the soldiers are achieving, protecting water pipes and helping to reconstruct schools and hospitals," says a defense ministry spokeswoman.

Yet for all the good deeds, the mission has not been without its transgressions. Military investigations into alleged mistreatment in more than 30 cases have been carried out and action could ensue in six of them; A dozen civil compensation cases against British soldiers accused of causing the death of Iraqi civilians have just been launched in London.

"There are enough investigations going on to suggest there are some bad apples, as there are in any force or community," says Sir Timothy Garden, a defense expert with the Royal Institute for International Affairs. "The main thing is to make sure that it is not endemic to the force."

British troops have enjoyed a more serene mission than their American counterparts - just 59 deaths since the war began. Still, troops are injured every week. "It is always a difficult problem, expecting young men to be one moment in a fight in which they may die, and the moment they have captured the person trying to kill them they have to become the protector of that person," says Mr. Garden.

The Army says its disciplinary record in Iraq is good: Of more than 30,000 troops, incidents have been counted in tens, not hundreds. Charles Heyman, senior defense analyst for Jane's Consultancy, says there will always be low-level incidents in any force, but the crucial thing is to act quickly. "If you find out there's a problem you come down on them like a ton of bricks," he says.

And Garden thinks the public actually still has a deep respect for the work the troops are doing. A poll last month showed that though 48 percent of voters believed the war was unjustified, 60 percent said forces should stay as long as was needed to finish the job.

"The British military are held in great awe by the British people, going and doing the job there because the government tells them to," he says. "Parliament decided we would go to war, and having caused the problem we are completely responsible and have to put it right."

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