Sir: I've just read your front page on Blackwater's latest "episode" ("Making a killing", 21 September). It dismays me that your correspondents seem not to differentiate between the US firms and the British ones operating in Iraq. I've just finished a three-and-a-half-year stint in Iraq working for British companies and have seen nothing but professionalism from them, a reflection of the backgrounds these men have been recruited from.
The US companies, on the other hand, have been quite the opposite. It seems to be a Standard Operating Procedure for them to open fire willy-nilly, as soon as a contact occurs. Myself and many others are only amazed that no action has been taken against US firms before and this has certainly come as no surprise to many.
While American "contractors" might relish the press title "mercenary", the Brits do not. We are working for the British or US (who are still our allies in this) Governments and not for third parties and our mission is defensive in nature and carried out to a high standard with professional pride and discipline, especially fire discipline, something many of our erstwhile allies have no conception of.
Sir: Your excellent front-page splash and inside reports on the rise of private mercenary armies omitted any reference to the record $475m security contract just awarded by the US administration to the British private military company Aegis Defence Services for security provision in Iraq. This deal underlines the important role that UK firms play in the increasing privatisation of conflict around the world, where Britain stands second only to the USA in development of the private military and security sector.
Five years ago, in its green paper on the issue, the British government recognised the problems posed by private military companies operating outside the law. Sunday's massacre of civilians by Blackwater guards is the latest in a long pattern of human rights abuses committed by mercenary troops in Iraq, yet ministers still refuse to bring forward the legislation promised in 2002. Perhaps outsourcing military operations to the commercial sector is just too convenient in the face of calls to bring our troops home. Yet if Baghdad's bloody Sunday proved anything, it is that Gordon Brown must act now to prevent such horrors from happening again.
SENIOR CAMPAIGNS OFFICERWAR ON WANTLondon EC2
Why Britain picks on Zimbabwe
Sir: Why has Gordon Brown decided to take such a principled stance against Robert Mugabe when there are far worse crimes being committed in other parts of Africa which are being ignored? The long-running wars in Sudan and DR Congo, the stifling corruption in Nigeria, the anarchy in Somalia and the dysfunctional governing of Angola and Liberia are just a few of the long list of African problems.
As someone who has worked for more than 30 years on development programmes all over Africa (including Zimbabwe), I can say with some certainty that the situation in Zimbabwe now is still better than it has been in many other African countries which never achieved the high standards that Zimbabwe enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. So why is the UK not taking other African leaders to task as it is with Mugabe?
The only obvious difference in Zimbabwe's case is that it is still home to 20,000 whites of British descent who remain there by choice. British multinational companies still dominate the domestic economy of Zimbabwe in both the mining and commercial sectors as well as banking and the retail trade. Despite a huge influx of South African investment in Zimbabwe its economy is still largely dominated by whites, both local and foreign. Could this be the background to Gordon's thinking? If we hang in there long enough maybe the post-Mugabe period will be more favourable to our investments and we can recoup some of our recent losses.
Sir: Prime Minister Gordon Brown (20 September) is "determined that Britain continues to do everything it can to help the Zimbabwean people". Perhaps he could explain how he is helping them by boycotting the first meeting between the European Union and the African Union in seven years. If the leaders of Tanzania and South Africa, whom he specifically claims to be supporting, thought Brown's move was in any way useful then they would follow suit. I doubt they will. If the meeting in Lisbon will benefit the people of Zimbabwe or any other African country, I would hope my Prime Minister would have the decency to attend. If the meeting is futile then bunking it achieves a whole lot of political rhetoric but zero substance.
I am not ignoring the financial donations made by our government, although we are surely all aware by now that throwing money at third world countries is largely ineffective no matter how impressive the numbers may look on paper. This is especially true in a country like Zimbabwe, rife with corruption and theft of aid.
However, we must contrast these donations with the economic sanctions imposed by the EU and the US against Zimbabwe. US economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s showed just how damaging these can be: they caused a rapid decrease in the average standard of living for the Iraqi people, fuelled hatred against the West and, critically, increased both support for Saddam Hussein and reliance upon him for survival.
Sir: Gordon Brown's comments on Zimbabwe are likely to be welcomed (20 September). He appears to emphasise the importance of human rights when considering relations with other governments.
Many people – both in the UK and overseas – will therefore find it difficult to understand why the Government is backing arms deals between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, one of the world's worst abusers of human rights. The Saudi regime employs torture and execution as routine tools of terror against its own people. The king outlaws all national elections, political parties and religious minorities. It is only a matter of weeks since the Saudi regime chose to behead a teenage girl after a trial in which she was allowed no legal representation.
If Gordon Brown wishes his comments on Zimbabwe to be taken seriously, he must not show the Saudi regime and BAE the subservience that Tony Blair was so keen to demonstrate. Next month the Saudi King Abdullah is planning a state visit to the UK. This will be Gordon Brown's chance to tell him that the UK Government will no longer put the desires of despots and arms dealers ahead of human rights and the British public interest.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)London N4
Sir: Gordon Brown's stance towards President Mugabe, and the extensive television coverage this week of increasingly dire conditions in Zimbabwe, are to be welcomed. But there has been no mention of the other side of the coin. Zimbabweans who fled their country have been "protected" here by two periods of an anti-removal policy, from January 2002 to November 2004, and from July 2005 continuing to the present. But they remain here in limbo and in destitution. Some can access minimal asylum benefits. Most cannot. Those without confirmed stay are prevented from working.
Within this community of displaced persons there exists great skill and experience which would be of massive benefit to the UK. And Zimbabweans would like nothing more than to work, to contribute to our economy, and to be able to send money home to starving relatives. Costly immigration court cases rumble through the system, appeals upon appeals. Action should be taken without further ado to grant secure status and the ability to work, now.
Cameron must start acting like a Tory
Sir: There is no mystery as to why David Cameron and his Conservative Party are so low in the popularity polls. The real puzzle is why Mr Cameron is not able to understand the lack of support for himself and his party.
The answers to his unpopularity are quite simply his policies and total lack of understanding of the ordinary people of this country. In simple terms Conservatives are conservative and would very much like to see this country return to the way it was before the bureaucrats of Brussels began to dictate how we should live. Also, a return to the sanity that existed before the arrival of the ridiculous Human Rights Act, the stupidity of political correctness and the farcical Health and Safety Executive.
Many of Mr Cameron's photo opportunities have made him look foolish. We all know that when we see Mr Cameron cycling on the roads of London that he is being followed by a large car carrying all he requires as the Leader of the Opposition. Such childish remarks as "hug a hoodie" bring nothing but ridicule, especially from those who have been attacked in any way.
If Mr Cameron stopped trying to please everyone and returned to old-fashioned conservative values, he might possibly stand a chance. However, if he continues to behave as he has done in the past, the Conservative party will fade from view forever.
Oxford admits its students on merit
Sir: We are concerned that your coverage of the Sutton Trust report (20 September) will discourage the very students we are keen to encourage to apply. We are confident that students with the right subject mix of A-levels and with good grades will stand an excellent chance of being admitted.
While it is true that a small number of schools send a large number of pupils to apply to Oxford University, the reverse is also true: a large number of schools send a small number of pupils. And it's these talented young people, who may be the only straight-A student in their school, we are trying hard to reach: summer schools, school visits, student shadowing schemes, e-mentoring and podcasts are just a few examples of the initiatives.
And contrary to some claims, we do not look at "soft skills" or how "confident" our applicants are: we are only interested in academic merit and potential, irrespective of background. The only way that guarantees not getting a place at Oxford is not to apply.
Director of Undergraduate Admissions University of Oxford
Sir: To suggest that there is a "bias at leading universities against selective state grammar schools" in favour of "independent schools" is wholly misleading. A higher proportion of students at independent schools apply to Russell Group universities. Therefore, more independently schooled students are offered places.
The problem is as much one of non-independent sector schools not doing enough to encourage students to apply, though undoubtedly Russell Group could do more to widen access. If I, a grammar-school student, hadn't applied to Oxford, I could hardly blame the university for not giving me a place.
Hertford College, Oxford
Ranting Mourinho forfeits sympathy
Sir: There will no doubt be a great outpouring of sympathy for Jose Mourinho following his sudden departure from Chelsea, but only on Monday I was reading these words from your sportswriter Glenn Moore following yet more comments on the match officials after the draw at home to Blackburn Rovers: "It is time the Football Association came down on Jose Mourinho and told him to either produce evidence that officials are bent, or stop insinuating it whenever he does not like a result."
Mr Moore spoke for many genuine football fans and brought to mind many other such ill-judged rants by the ex-Chelsea manager. A case of what goes around?
Alan J Fisher
Play the game
Sir: Michael O'Hare has hit the nail squarely on the head with his analysis of Andy Farrell's performance during England's humiliation by South Africa (letter, 20 September). Farrell played like a true rugby league forward should play. Sadly, everybody else was playing union.
A fee too far?
Sir: Having just received my latest bill from BT, I note that there is a "payment processing fee" of £4.50 added, and that "This charge has been made by BT Payment Services Ltd for processing your payment". So it seems that BT customers must now pay for the privilege of paying their bills. Whatever next – will supermarkets start to charge customers a fee for the privilege of using their tills?
Slow British trains
Sir: It seems to me that a more appropriate title for the piece "Eurostar puts Brussels within the 'two-hour club' after record rail journey" (21 September) might be "Fog lifts from Channel: Europe no longer cut off". It is London that has been put within the "European two-hour club" after the UK finally built its first dedicated high-speed railway line. The question is: when can Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Wales and Scotland expect to join the European high-speed rail club?
Miguel CARRIÓN ÁLVARE
Sir: Bravo to the witnesses who eventually came forward and testified in the case of Surjit Atwal ("Grandmother gets life for 'honour Killing' ", 19 September) and to Judge Forrester for handing down these sentences. Justice for poor Surjit came late, but at least it came. In some countries where "honour" killings take place, such as Jordan, these crimes are treated as misdemeanours. The average sentence there is only six months.
Ellen R Sheeley
Sir: It's easy to poke fun at Venezuela "joining an as exclusive club of countries that are adrift by half-hour increments from Greenwich Mean Time, including Afghanistan, Iran and Burma", but you could just as well have mentioned India and Canada.
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