Basra: What really happened

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The young soldiers in flames jumping from their Warrior vehicles into a seething crowd provided some of the defining images of British troops' tour of duty in Iraq.

More than any other moment since the official start of "peacekeeping", it brought home the reality faced by troops in an increasingly turbulent nation.

The Defence Secretary, John Reid, was quick to play down the severity of the clashes last September. It was merely a "limited", controlled event against a small crowd, the Ministry of Defence said. The minister offered reassurances that none of the soldiers was seriously injured and would be back on duty soon.

But an investigation by The Independent has revealed that the violence was much more widespread and one of the youngest soldiers in the Warriors that day is still in hospital four months later, suffering from terrible burns. Nineteen-year-old Pte Karl Hinett is still undergoing treatment for 37 per cent burns.

Many were horrified to see images of Sgt George Long, his body in flames, jumping from the turret. However, what the images failed to show was that Pte Hinett was still in flames inside the Warrior armoured vehicle. The severity of his injuries has never been revealed and even many of his fellow soldiers in the Staffordshire Regiment were not told. One said yesterday that he was devastated when he bumped into him recently while visiting a friend at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham.

"I went outside for a smoke and saw a woman, probably his mother, walk by with a lad. I didn't know it was him," he said. "I didn't recognise him but I know the way he walks. He walked over to me and I looked in his face. He didn't have any nostrils, no eyebrows, his lips had melted, his skin had melted on his face. He was in bits. I looked at him and I didn't know where to put myself. I was gutted."

On 19 September last year, soldiers from the Staffordshire Regiment and Coldstream Guards were sent out on to the streets to try to rescue two SAS men who had been taken prisoner. The situation erupted as petrol bombs were thrown at their vehicles.

The Government insisted that events were of "limited significance"and involved 200 protesters.

However, according to sources spoken to by The Independent, as many as 200 troops were dispatched to deal with the situation. Those on the ground that day put the number of protesters at nearer 1,000, with at least nine Iraqis shot dead. All day, in intense heat, the fighting continued. As many as three Warriors were in flames.

One soldier said: "The first place we went, we were told the SAS were in a different location. The next minute, there was a big crowd in the streets. It was just hairy. It just happened so quickly. There were bricks, blocks and petrol bombs. There hadn't been anything like that before."

Dr Reid said at the time: "I am pleased to say that they are being treated for minor injuries only and are expected to return to duty shortly." Within days, four soldiers were brought forward to prove the point.

Sgt Long said: "My back was on fire. It was basic panic, I needed to get out of the turret and get the flames put out." He had, he added, gone back to check that his colleague was being looked after before going off to deal with the riot. "It wasn't that bad," the soldiers said.

Almost a week later, Army officers revealed that a soldier had been flown home with serious injuries contrary to the official line and that civilians had, in fact, been killed.

"At first, no one realised there were any serious injuries," said one private. "There was too much confusion. You didn't have time to think about it.

"But later we found out Karl [Hinett] had been flown home. When I saw the others on the news with their little injuries, I couldn't believe they put them in the paper and not Karl."

Pte Hinett, from Tipton, West Midlands, was known as a man who liked to keep fit, listen to rock music and receive cakes from his girlfriend back home. Now he has burns across his body and has had to undergo at least three operations.

Yesterday his family insisted he remained loyal to his regiment and was grateful to the Army for the high level of care he had received since returning.

One said: "His face is a lot better. We don't know when he will be out of hospital. Not always, but sometimes, he is in high spirits. He just wants to get back to work."

While the deaths of 98 servicemen in Iraq has been well documented, the military has been at pains to say little of those who have received crippling injuries. More than 4,000 have been flown home for medical treatment though the MoD insists the majority were people who had fallen ill.

A spokesman said: "None of the soldiers involved in the incident on 19 September had life-threatening injuries and all received the medical treatment necessary. The Army takes its responsibilities towards officers and soldiers very seriously, particularly when they are injured during the course of duty."

But Sue Smith, whose son, Pte Phillip Hewett, 21, was one of three Staffordshire soldiers killed by a roadside bomb last July, said: "People should realise it is not just 98 dead. There are a lot of very serious injuries. Basically they are the forgotten soldiers of the Iraq war. The Government thinks ignorance is bliss. If you keep people in the dark, they won't ask questions.

"What chance do the British public get to make a decision when everything is hidden? Why are they hiding it? If I know all about 12 [people] who have lost limbs and arms, why don't the public know? There are people who have lost eyes, people who are paraplegic, people with head injuries, people with burns."

One of Pte Hinett's regiment agreed: "I was at the medical centre one day. I had just come off QRF [quick reaction force]. Four snatches [armoured Land Rovers] pulled up.

"Three blokes were carried out, brought in on stretchers. There was blood everywhere, all over the floor. It may me feel sick. They had shrapnel wounds to their legs and arms. An IED [roadside bomb] had gone off. People are not told what is happening to our blokes out there."