Focus: Colonel Tim - the making of a modern hero

There was always more to Colonel Tim Collins than met the eye. Sure, he has the looks, the swagger, the cigar and the shades. And, yes, as his rousing speech to his Royal Irish Rangers before battle in Iraq showed, he has a way with words. Now, as he is investigated for alleged war crimes, a rather more complex version of the photo-opportunity hero is emerging. Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

The rise of Tim Collins was dramatic but the nature of it set him up for a fall. First he was hailed as a hero, the perfect icon for an unpopular war, equipped with the diplomacy and circumspection required of a modern commander charged with winning hearts and minds as well as battles. The speech he made in a dusty courtyard as his men prepared to join the invasion of Iraq was worthy of a Shakespearean prince, and his words were lauded all the way to the White House, where the President pinned them on the wall.

Then the accusations started and he was portrayed as a villain, a flash, brash, cigar-chomping bully boy who had gone too far in the heat of the desert. The news that his behaviour and battalion are being investigated delighted some people in the British and US armies, and others were happy to attack him publicly.

Former officers such as the Balkans hero Colonel Bob Stewart were initially willing to give credence to the allegations when news of the inquiry emerged last Wednesday. It seemed, briefly, that the military establishment was walking away from Collins. That mood changed within 12 hours, when army sources briefed that the allegations against him were "exaggerated" and former officers who had been prepared to express doubts about his judgement rallied to his defence, drawing close attention to alleged inadequacies in the US forces.

This rallying round may have had something to do with the revelation in the London Evening Standard that afternoon that Col Collins had been a member of the SAS. Other newspapers had known this but not mentioned it at the request of the Ministry of Defence which wanted to protect his personal security. There is an unspoken military convention that you never criticise members of the SAS in public. There was more to Col Collins than had met the eye. Perhaps he was the perfect hero for this most ambiguous of wars after all.

The speech that had made him known to the public happened when the men of the Royal Irish Regiment gathered in a half-circle around him shortly before crossing the border into Iraq. Speaking off the cuff, according to the reporter who took down his words in shorthand, he warned his forces to show respect for the ancient land they were about to enter, the cradle of civilisation. "We go to liberate, not to conquer," he said in a rousing speech which included words that must now haunt him. "If you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory ... You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest, for your deeds will follow you down through history."

The Prince of Wales praised his words as "stirring, civilised and humane". President Bush fixed them up on the wall of the Oval Office beside a framed original of George Washington's inaugural speech.

The irony is as epic as Collins's language. The Army's Special Investigations Branch is now investigating allegations that he punched and kicked Iraqi soldiers to extract information, pistol-whipped a prisoner of war and used his sidearm to terrify civilians. Such conduct would contravene Articles 3 and 13 of the Geneva Conventions which require that prisoners of war and non-combatants must be treated humanely.

Despite his swagger and props such as the cigars and the sunglasses, friends of Collins's say the pre-war speech was not motivated by a desire to get noticed. According to this sympathetic version of events, Collins was aware of the angry controversy at home and the spellbinding resignation speech given by Robin Cook in the House of Commons a few days earlier. He was convinced that sophistication was necessary as well as courage, and the eloquence and political awareness was a product of his upbringing, not pomposity. Soldiers who know him insist that the colonel was not playing to the gallery. This was just the sort of oratory that a devout Ulster Presbyterian becomes accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. Col Collins crafted fine words because he was used to hearing them. Eloquence was the norm in his church and his school.

Tim Collins attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, a selective grammar in his native Northern Ireland, and emerged with A-levels in history, English and art. He went on to Queen's University in Belfast where he took an honours degree in history. Next came Sandhurst and a commission in the Royal Corps of Signals. After transferring to the Royal Irish Rangers in 1982 he served in Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

A later part of his service record was secret until last week. Former members of the SAS say Collins served alongside them before taking command of the Royal Irish Rangers. One SAS veteran who served under his command says he is "incredibly bright" and a superb organiser of men and resources. Another describes him as "admired by everyone who served with him, as hard as nails and capable of taking a very black-and-white attitude". The source adds that Collins's achievement in passing SAS selection was particularly impressive because he did not come from one of the traditional feeder regiments such as the Parachute Regiment or Royal Marines.

A soldier who trained with him says: "Tim's accent is not cut-glass. He sounds like what he is, a bright middle-class graduate from Northern Ireland. There used to be old-school officers who resented the promotion of guys like him, but the British Army has changed. It had to. All the Royal Irish Regiment officers sound like that. If resentment is fuelling these claims it is based on jealousy, not prejudice."

The most serious accusation he faces is that of hitting Ayoub Yousif Nasser on the back of the head with his pistol. Nasser, a Baath party member and headmaster of a primary school in the village of Rumeila, claims Collins kicked him in the ribs and leg while searching his house for concealed weapons which he had denied he possessed. After the weapons were recovered from the garden, Nasser claims he and his 21-year-old son, Nawfel, were placed against a wall at the local civic centre and subjected to a mock execution by soldiers under Collins's command. Nasser says he heard Collins give the order to "kill them" before other soldiers provided medical treatment for his bleeding head. Nobody except those directly involved witnessed the alleged assault on Nasser and his son. Residents of Rumeila seem unconcerned about whether it happened or not. Nasser is loathed as a man who profited from the reign of Saddam by exploiting his power over neighbours.

The allegations did not emerge from the ranks of the Royal Irish Regiment. During the fighting in Iraq Collins's battalion was accompanied by an American unit called Anglico - the Air, Naval, Gunfire Liaison Company. Later they were joined by US Civil Affairs officers. These are the US army's in-house equivalent of aid workers, and are trained to re-establish basic services including health, education and power services to the populations of occupied territories. In Iraq they are also expected to help establish working relationships with local civic representatives.

Collins's friends are keen to highlight the differences between British and US military culture. One explains: "Every RIR soldier in Iraq was a career volunteer. The regimental bond is much stronger than in the US. They hang together under stress. US reservists don't have that bond. One of the Anglico officers was a Vietnam veteran, some had seen combat in Panama or the last Gulf War, but mainly they were postmen and police officers thrown together at short notice. It can be a problem inculcating team spirit." A retired officer who knows Tim Collins says: "Tim could have had a problem with the mindset of some US reservists. Some would have been tired and keen to go home. Technically the Americans can do their job, but their mental composition is fundamentally different. They are brave men, but they do tend to talk about their feelings. A British regiment in combat does not have the inclination for that sort of thing."

The former officer says: "Tim is not a micro-manager. He would not shout at US privates or sergeants, but if he asked for fire support and a US officer was not able to respond immediately then strong words might have been used. A British officer would consider that normal in the circumstances. American reservists might not."

Is that what is behind the allegations levelled against Collins? Alex Gardiner is a former British major who also served in the army of the Sultan of Oman. He was embedded with the RIR during the war as a correspondent and cameraman for Abu Dhabi Television. "I noticed prisoners being unloaded and, because I speak Arabic, I talked to them. I wanted to film them but Tim told me, "You can't do that. It's against the Geneva Convention.' The Iraqis talked to me and Tim asked me to tell them 'You are now safe. You will get medical treatment and food.' One Iraqi had been shot. He pointed out his wound and I pointed it out to Tim Collins. He called up his own medics to give treatment."

Gardiner describes Collins's approach to the Iraqi population of Rumeila as "really thoughtful. He persuaded teachers to come back to the schools because exams were imminent. He persuaded a local Shia cleric to sing prayers, which he had been terrified to do under the Saddam regime. Tim even got him a loudspeaker. Some of the local people were not entirely happy about being liberated, but they were impressed".

It has been reported that the American officer who made the allegations was motivated by a clash of personal styles. Sources close to the RIR suggest the row was more serious and principled than that. They say the American did resent Collins's attitude to US reservists but particularly disliked his willingness to get involved in bridge-building with Iraqi non-combatants. Collins believed order would be established more quickly if those accused of looting and petty crime were dealt with by civilians. It is said he negotiated with religious and tribal chiefs and established a group of magistrates to do this work, making the final selection himself. A source says the Civil Affairs officer objected because he considered this patronising and undemocratic, a British colonial system of limited autonomy. It is even suggested the American proposed involving Naser in an alternative system.

The implication is that Collins strayed on to the Civil Affairs officer's area of expertise and showed no humility in doing so. Given the culture of the Royal Irish Regiment that is not implausible. It was created in 1992 by a merger of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment. Three of its four battalions are permanently based in Northern Ireland and are noted for their expertise in counter-terrorist operations. The officers and men are accustomed to searching civilian homes and apparently innocuous sites that may harbour lethal weapons and dedicated terrorists.

Their role has made them deeply unpopular with Irish republicans. The Prime Minister is apparently prepared to scale down the regiment as part of the effort to persuade the IRA to complete meaningful disarmament. Was the regimental mindset that republicans despise the one that Collins, a veteran of the Troubles, took to Rumeila?

Tim Collins is happily married with five children aged between one and 13. The family lived until last week in the accommodation provided as the resident colonel's married quarters at Howe Barracks in Canterbury, Kent. Their current whereabouts are being kept secret by friends and colleagues, and the colonel is unlikely to be given a new posting (and therefore new living quarters) until after the inquiry. Caroline Collins is several years younger than her husband and was, until recently, one of Northern Ireland's top female squash players. An SAS contemporary describes Collins's family as "incredibly close" and adds: "That is rare. The SAS has the highest divorce rate in the British Army."

Tim's mother, Mary Collins, recently said her husband, who died last year at 93, would have been intensely proud of their son. His ambitions to serve in the military were thwarted by partial deafness.

Collins grew up in fiercely Protestant East Belfast and played by the UDR barracks near his home. It would not be astonishing if he considered the potential threat from Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen both familiar and deserving of prompt, decisive repression. His nickname "Nails" was an affectionate tribute to his no-nonsense approach. In Iraq, Collins was commanding the sons of men who were senior in the regiment when he joined. If one of them was killed by a sniper's bullet or ambushed by a suicide bomber he would be the one offering condolences to distraught wives and parents, a responsibility additional to the incessant pressure imposed on a commander leading his troops into hostile territory.

The final leap up the chain of command, from colonel to the higher echelons of the top brass, is only achieved by officers who prove themselves adept at handling the political and diplomatic demands made on senior commanders in the media age. Tim Collins's speech suggested that he has those skills. Others who lack them, or who have not had the opportunity to display their sophistication, are undismayed that his moment of glory has led so rapidly to grief. A few relish the news that the Ministry of Defence is to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into claims that Collins's command of the RIR General Service Battalion has been marked by systematic bullying and intimidation.

After his rousing words, has Col Collins been hoist by his own petard? If he did pistol-whip Ayoub Yousif Nasser, shoot at the tyres of looters and fire to intimidate civilians, was he bullying or taking legitimate precautions? Most of those who witnessed his conduct in Iraq say that he met his own criteria - "ferocious in battle and magnanimous in victory". The real issue is where the line between battle and victory should be drawn. Three decades of conflict in his owns native Northern Ireland have failed to deliver a decisive answer to that question.