British verdict: 'friendly fire' death of soldier in Iraq 'criminal'

A British corner has ruled that the "friendly fire" death of a British soldier in Iraq, in 2003, was an unlawful and criminal act. The Daily Telegraph reports that Andrew Walker, the Oxfordshire assistant deputy coroner, said he did not think the attack that killed Corporal Matty Hall was an "honest mistake" as there was no evidence that the US pilots involved were "acting in self defense." Mr. Walker also criticized American officials for refusing to cooperate with his inquiry.

The inquest, at Oxford's Old Assizes, had heard how the pilot of a US A-10 Tank-buster plane swooped and opened fire on the L/Cpl Hull's armed vehicle convoy in southern Iraq on March 28, 2003.

L/Cpl Hull died in the attack, which happened just three days before his 26th birthday. Four other British soldiers were injured. The British vehicles were clearly marked. But they were targeted by two US jets who were patrolling the area in search of Iraqi forces.

US and British officials had tried to suppress all evidence concerning the incident, but a transcript of the conversation between the two parttime reservist US pilots involved and ground control was published in the Sun newspaper in January. The transcript indicates that the pilots knew they had done something wrong, including one of the pilots saying after the attack "We're in jail, dude."

The Guardian reports the US military had refused to make the two pilots involved available to the inquest. After the verdict was read, widow Susan Hall expressed her disappointment with President Bush, whom she had met in 2003, and who had promised to help her get to the bottom of what happened to her husband.

"They [British and American forces] were altogether serving [in Iraq]. But when it came to following up afterwards I think we were badly let down," Mrs Hull said. She added that better co-operation could have made the aftermath "less painful and less difficult" and lessons should be learnt from her husband's death.

However, her lawyer, Geraldine McCool, who was also involved in representing families of British servicemen killed by US friendly fire during the 1991 Gulf war, said she had "not seen any evidence" that anything had changed in the intervening period.

The Times of London reports Ms. Hall and her lawyers also appealed one last time for Mr. Bush to help them discover the truth about what happened. Hall believes that an interview with the ground controller in charge of the two planes was "blacked out of the US Friendly Fire Investigation Board report given to the coroner."

An investigation conducted by the American military in 2003 found the two pilots – who had no combat experience the time of the incident – had not done anything wrong. They were told at the time by air controllers that there were no friendly forces in the area, but they were also not giving any permission to fire on any vehicles. The American investigation concluded that the incident was an "tragic accident."

After the British inquest ended, BBC reports Mrs. Hall's lawyer said the verdict did not indicate a prosecution of the US pilots involved would happen and that Susan Hall would not be asking for one. Meanwhile the British Ministry of Defense apologized for the way the release of the tape was handled. A spokesman for the MOD said that "This inquest has highlighted the need for a more coherent approach to the management of documentation and evidence."

In February, the BBC talked with Ward Carroll, a former Navy pilot who is now editor of the website Mr. Carroll, who had reviewed the cockpit tape that was seen at the inquiry, said that the attack was a typical friendly fire incident but that the two American pilots should not have attacked once they saw the orange markings on Hull's armored carrier, which indicated it was a coalition vehicle.

"The US and UK work very hard to avoid such things, but in a highly mobile operation with literally thousands of coalition and enemy vehicles in the area of operations some mistakes are bound to happen."

That will be little comfort to the family of Matty Hull. It may also be little comfort to the pilots who killed him, Ward Carroll says.

"You can hear in their voices as soon as they realize what's happened. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. These guys live in hell for the balance of their lives."

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