Poor planning in Iraq to blame for soldiers' deaths, says coroner

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The Independent Online

A coroner has severely criticised British army officers, saying their failure to plan was partly to blame for the capture and execution of two of their men in the early days of the Iraq war.

Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth, 36 and a father of two, and Sapper Luke Allsopp, 24, were murdered by Iraqi intelligence after being captured in an ambush when they strayed into dangerous territory.

The inquest into their deaths came as it emerged that another soldier had been killed in Iraq, bringing the toll to 119. A Royal Army Medical Corps soldier was killed on Sunday when 15 mortars were fired at a British base, with three hitting the compound. Within hours the base came under attack again. This time the rockets fell short, killing two small children, aged seven and three, and wounding another.

"This was a very serious indirect fire attack, and we have in recent weeks increased our security measures there, and were it not for these security measures we could have had more casualties", said Major Charlie Burbridge, the British forces spokesman in Basra.

The two-day inquest into the deaths of Staff Sgt Cullingworth and Spr Allsopp revealed the details of their last few hours alive as well as a catalogue of errors. The bomb disposal experts from 33 Engineer Regiment, on their way to clear a radio station, had taken a route on which the ITN journalist Terry Lloyd, 51, had been killed a day earlier - caught in the crossfire between US and Iraqi forces.

Instead of being told to skirt around the town of Az-Zubayr, in southern Iraq, they were ordered to go through the outskirts. When they took a wrong turn, it led them straight through the town where they were hit by a hail of bullets and a rocket-propelled grenade before being dragged from their vehicle.

The assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, Andrew Walker, described the route the men took as "extremely dangerous" and added: "If the proper procedures had been followed then no one should have been allowed to use that route. Headquarters knew that it was a dangerous area and they were advising people not to go near that area on the 23rd."

As it emerged that two Iraqis had been arrested and were awaiting trial, the coroner returned a verdict that the soldiers had been unlawfully killed, "murdered by Iraqi intelligence personnel".

He added: "It was, in my opinion, inexcusable that the road they were supposed to be taking took them through the outskirts and exposed them to danger. The failure to adequately plan for and warn of the dangers in Az-Zubayr is, in my view, a contributory factor in their deaths."

The soldiers were in a two-vehicle patrol on 23 March 2003 when they were ambushed. They were still alive when they were taken to Ba'ath party headquarters. But, instead of receiving medical treatment as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, they were filmed as they lay dying, surrounded by a mob.

The film was shown on al-Jazeera television, prompting a row when the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said they had been executed after the men's families were told that they had died in combat.

The coroner said: "Staff Sgt Cullingworth administered morphine to Spr Allsopp at some point. From there they were taken ostensibly to a hospital but, in fact, to an Iraqi military intelligence compound. They were shot and killed in that compound." The bodies were found three weeks later in shallow graves.

The court heard previously from Lance Corporal Marcus Clarke and L/Cpl Philip John Law, who had been in the vehicle behind but were unable to save their colleagues because of the ferocity of the attack. Despite the fact that each vehicle should have had a map, L/Cpl Law said Staff Sgt Cullingworth had the only one issued to them. After their capture, soldiers from the Black Watch fought into town to rescue them but found only the burnt-out Land Rover.

The inquest into Mr Lloyd's death begins today.