Three soldiers are cleared over death of Iraqi teenager

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The Independent Online

A British soldier criticised his lack of training last night as he was cleared, along with two other servicemen, of killing an Iraqi teenager.

Guardsman Martin McGing, along with a fellow Irish Guard, Guardsman Joseph McCleary, and Sgt Carle Selman, then of the Coldstream Guards and now serving with the Scots Guards, were on their last day of duty in Basra in May 2003 when they caught four Iraqis looting a garage.

The servicemen were accused of forcing the suspects - including 15-year-old Ahmad Jabbar Kareem - into a muddy, tidal canal on the outskirts of town to "teach them a lesson''. The asthmatic youngster immediately began to struggle before vanishing under the water as the soldiers drove away.

Sgt Selman, 39, Guardsman McCleary, 24, and Guardsman McGing, 22, all denied manslaughter but declined to give evidence during the five-week hearing at Colchester Barracks.

Yesterday a panel of seven officers found them not guilty after deliberating for five hours. The soldiers' families wept with relief after hearing the verdict. Shaking with emotion, Guardsman McCleary said: "Justice was served.''

The court martial heard from Lt-Col Nicholas Mercer, who conceded that there had been insufficient planning as UK forces became an army of occupation for the first time in modern conflicts. The British headquarters had "just enough time to prepare for war, never mind the occupation itself,'' he said, adding: "Whatever the reason, there was a total failure to plan for the occupation of Iraq, which was subsequently described as a 'strategic failure'.''

Jerry Hayes, barrister for Guardsman McGing, said that, without planning, the difficult task of transition from war to peace-keeping was placed in the hands of young soldiers, such as his client, who was 19 at the time.

The court martial heard that in the days after the initial invasion, looting had reached "epidemic proportions'', with no real guidance as how best to deal with it.

A witness, Aiad Salim Hanon, a 25-year-old welder, conceded that he was reduced to looting, as he tried to support his family on the equivalent of 15p a day. ''There was bombing by Bush at the time, there was a curfew, we could not work. It was a catastrophe. We were very hungry. It [stealing] was wrong but we had no other option." He said he was arrested with the teenager and two other men and severely beaten before being forced into the Shatt al-Basra canal at gunpoint.

He watched as the youngster, who could not swim, struggled to stop himself being swept away by the tide. "There was mud beneath our feet, it was slippery. There was a tide. He just raised his hand, but then he was under the water and then he raised them again. Both arms were stretched out of the water, but there was no sound from him. Then he vanished. There was nothing I could do, because I could not swim well."

Kareem's body was found two days later.

The court heard there was a policy of "wetting'' looters in rivers and canals, in an attempt to make them feel uncomfortable and persuade them to go home. It was regarded as "minimum force'' in the circumstances.

Last year, seven British soldiers were cleared of murder when their trial collapsed because the judge concluded the Iraqi witnesses were unreliable.

A case against another seven British soldiers accused of killing an Iraqi hotel receptionist is due to be heard later this year.