Leading article: Defending the indefensible

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The Independent Online

The Defence Secretary's talk of putting this episode in perspective is insidious. The vicious assault in southern Iraq, first brought to public attention just over a week ago, was plain wrong from whichever angle it is examined. Let us remember that this was not a case of a few stray baton strikes in a spur-of-the-moment confrontation with protesters. What we saw on that video was four Iraqis being dragged into a British compound for a severe and potentially lethal beating. Even if the British public is as naïve about military affairs as Mr Reid claims, we can surely recognise that much.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Mr Reid's speech came perilously close to being an apologia for such behaviour. Of course, it is reasonable to point out that the vast majority of the 80,000 British soldiers who have served in Iraq have performed their duty with bravery and restraint. The fact that the soldiers involved in this latest scandal are not representative of the entire Army can legitimately be held up as an appropriate context. But it cannot be used in mitigation. Nor can it be used to imply that there is no need for the Army to conduct a rigorous examination of discipline.

There is a broader context here too. Contrary to what Mr Reid would wish, British troops in Iraq are not seen there as a liberating army. At best they are tolerated as a temporary peacekeeping force. The Army, and the Defence Secretary, would do well to recognise that the role of peacekeeping troops is highly sensitive, especially when they cannot rely on the goodwill of the population. Any hint of brutality risks turning the population hostile and losing, in that apparently forgotten phrase, "hearts and minds". Let Mr Reid try telling Iraqis in Basra and Maysan that they should be more sympathetic to the pressures on British soldiers.

This betrayal of trust is the real significance of the latest abuse scandal. And Mr Reid's stubborn refusal to acknowledge this does nothing to make British troops abroad any safer - whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.