MI6 chief reveals advance warning of Abu Ghraib problems

British officials were aware of possible violence against Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison almost a year before revelations of torture and abuse finally emerged, the head of MI6 has revealed.

Sir John Sawers said that poor conditions and possible violent mistreatment of inmates by the US troops running the prison were known within months of the invasion in March 2003. It was not until the Spring of 2004 that cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse were exposed publicly.

Sir John, who served as special representative in Baghdad in 2003, told the Iraq inquiry that his team had been aware of “difficulties” within the facility as early as June 2003. He said that his team heard accounts of the use of “possibly unnecessary violence”.

However, he insisted that the extent of the abuses that eventually came to light were “way beyond” anything that British officials in Iraq had imagined. “We knew of difficulties in the conditions for detainees dating back to June, July of 2003,” said Sir John, who arrived in Baghdad in May 2003 to represent Tony Blair in the Iraqi capital. “But the revelations at Abu Ghraib were definitely a shock to us, as they were to everybody on the American side as well as across the world.”

He added: “We thought the basic problems were about poor conditions and possibly unnecessary violence, but Abu Ghraib was an extra dimension.” Eleven US soldiers were convicted of committing abuses against prisoners within the facility. Two soldiers were sentenced to ten years and three years in prison.

Sir John said that the high-profile inquiry in 2004 into the torture claims at Abu Ghraib marked the low point for the British team working to try to rebuild Iraq after the invasion. “It was then that we realised the scale of the task that was ahead of us and the need to really put our heads down and be in it for the longer term because the insurgency and the violence was clearly not at a peak,” he said. “The Abu Ghraib issues just added another nasty twist to the difficulties that we faced.”

He admitted to the inquiry that the British Government may well have decided not to invade Iraq had it been aware of the true scale of the insurgency awaiting it after Saddam Hussein had been toppled. “Frankly, had we known the scale of the violence, it might well have led to second thoughts about the entire project,” he said. “There is little doubt that had we planned for the post-war period more thoroughly, and in a more joined-up fashion with the United States, we would have thought through some of these scenarios and we would have been better prepared.”

The inquiry, led by Sir John Chilcot, also heard that demands for more British troops to cope with worsening security in Iraq were refused by Whitehall officials. Lt General Sir Robert Fry, who served as deputy commander of the coalition forces, said that a split within the Cabinet paralysed efforts to cope with the invasion’s aftermath.

“Throughout the time the UK was in Iraq, commanders on the ground wanted more forces, Whitehall wanted fewer. And Whitehall won,” Sir Robert said. He added that that attempts to co-ordinate the reconstruction effort broke down because “neither the nation nor Parliament nor even the Cabinet were unified on the war”.

He reserved particular criticism for the Department for International Development (DfID), revealing that there were DFID officials who could “barely disguise their moral disdain for what we were doing”. Clare Short, who led the department, resigned after the invasion took place. “The mechanisms of government were compromised at the time," Sir Robert said. “If we decide to embark on very large national enterprises we need to be sure full capacity of the nation is behind them.”