Soldier arrested over abuse of Iraqis

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The Independent Online

British soldiers were questioned by the military police yesterday over attacks on captive Iraqi youths, and a corporal who filmed the abuse was arrested.

A soldier has been arrested over the attacks on captive Iraqi youths which were filmed and broadcast around the world.

Corporal Martin Webster is believed to have been held in England on Sunday evening. He is said to have been involved in making the video. Five other soldiers, also from the 1st Battalion the Light Infantry, were interviewed at their base in Germany about the incident in Maysan province, southern Iraq, in January 2004.

The Light Infantry is due to return in two months to Iraq where there is growing anger after pictures of the beatings were published in the News of the World on Sunday. Footage was then shown on television.

In the video, the cameraman shouts with delight as the Iraqi captives are brought into the British army compound. "Yes, yes, oh yes, you're going to get it," he says. "Yes, naughty little boys. Ha, ha, ha. Phoar you little fuckers, you little fuckers. Die!" He mocks the youths' pleas for mercy saying, in a falsetto voice: "No, please don't hurt me." It is not known whether the voice belonged to Cpl Webster.

Officers from the Royal Military Police's special investigations branch travelled to Paderborn in Germany to question the soldiers after interviewing Cpl Webster. Ministry of Defence officials refused to comment on whether he had identified those taking part in the mistreatment.

Footage shown by the BBC suggests the beatings were in response to unrest on the streets. After a mortar explosion, soldiers were attacked by a mob, in the minutes before the assault. It was after troops ran up the street to counter the mob that the abuse took place.

The Light Infantry - which has the motto, "I rise again with increased splendour" - was part of a 20 Armour Brigade battle group that was in southern Iraq in early 2004, a time when there were widespread disturbances beginning with Iraqi officials protesting about unpaid wages. The Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment, Lieutenant-General Sir Robin Brims, won the Distinguished Service Order while leading the 1st Armoured Division during the Iraq war.

The MoD said there were no plans to stop the deployment of the Light Infantry to Iraq in April and May. Seventy per cent of the 1st Battalion served in Iraq, and soldiers who were there during the 2004 incidents will be among those sent.

British troops deployed to Afghanistan last night as part of a 5,700-strong force have seen the video footage and discussed the impact it may have on their arrival.

Colonel Ged Salzano, commander of 42 Commando Royal Marines said: "We are conscious of the sensitivities but the guys are very focused on what they need to do."

Military sources insisted the abuse was carried out by only a handful of soldiers.

None of the Iraqis in the film have made complaints, and the Royal Military Police will go to Iraq to try and trace them. But they said the task would be extremely difficult in Maysan, a hostile area where British forces have been in involved in firefights with Shia militias.

An MoD spokesman said: "We can confirm that the 1st Battalion the Light Infantry are assisting military police with inquiries. Investigations are going on to identify all personnel involved in the video."

Despite periodic outbreaks of violence, British forces in southern Iraq have not faced anything like the kind of hostility from the local Shia population that the Americans have suffered in Sunni central Iraq.

However, British commanders say the film of mistreatment, with Shia as victims, may fuel confrontations at a time when feelings are running high over publications of cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in European newspapers.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has asked the British Government to investigate the abuse.

An experienced outfit

* The modern Light Infantry was formed in 1968. Its history goes back to the North American wars in the 1750s.

* The 1st Battalion, now based in Germany, returned to Iraq in late 2003 and early 2004 - when the alleged abuse took place.

* The regiment claims to be the Army's most operationally experienced. Seventy per cent of those returning to Iraq in May have already served there.

* In 1988 eight men from the battalion were killed by a roadside bomb in Northern Ireland.