The abuse of Iraqi civilians by British troops was more widespread than the torture and sexual humiliation allegedly carried out by three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, a court martial was told yesterday.
An Army Lieutenant Colonel revealed prisoner abuse had become so frequent in British-occupied Iraq that he had been forced to issue specific orders insisting soldiers should not assault civilians and that they should be treated "with humanity and dignity at all times".
Colonel Nicholas Mercer, a legal services expert for the army in Iraq, was speaking as a witness at the court martial in Germany of Corporal Daniel Kenyon, 33, Lance Corporals Mark Cooley, 25, and Darren Larkin, 30, who are on trial at a British Army military base at Osnabrück on charges of assault and indecent conduct.
Photographs showing the accused men allegedly torturing Iraqis and forcing them to simulate anal and oral sex prompted widespread condemnation in Britain and across the world.
The images also provoked anger among MPs, who demanded an inquiry into how far up the chain of command the order to allegedly mistreat prisoners had originated.
MPs questioned why senior officers were not also facing a court martial after yesterday's hearing was told that the accused men claimed they were only following orders,
A former Labour defence minister, Peter Kilfoyle, said: "It has echoes of Abu Ghraib where the buck stopped at a very junior level. The MoD has to demonstrate that does not apply here and that they were acting under orders."
The Prime Minister told MPs: "I think everyone finds those photographs shocking and appalling - there are simply no other word to describe them."
Michael Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, said they would bring "shame" on Britain, while Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, described the images as "disgusting and degrading".
The abuse of the civilians occurred at the British Army's so-called Camp Bread Basket food and humanitarian aid store near Basra on 15 May 2003 after the unit's commanding officer Major Dan Taylor launched an operation, codenamed Ali Baba, and instructed soldiers to round up looters, detain them and "work them hard" under orders that contravened the Geneva Conventions, the court martial was told earlier this week.
Yesterday, witnesses were shown photographs of British soldiers at the camp laughing, smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign as they stood beside Iraqi civilians who had been sent on a forced run while carrying crates of powdered milk above their heads.
However, Col Mercer revealed yesterday that the abuse of detained civilians by British soldiers was not confined to Camp Bread Basket. He told the board of seven officers trying the case that, shortly after the Bread Basket incidents, on 20 May 2003, he had been obliged to issue a specific order which "underlined the need for humanity and dignity at all times" concerning detainees. "The order stressed that they should not be assaulted," he said.
Col Mercer added, in a reference to detained Iraqis: "The Army took 3,000 prisoners of war on the battlefield and 1,000 were civilians. There was no difficulty with them but, once we moved into an occupation situation, things changed. There were a number of allegations made that these people were not being treated as they should. We had heard that there were problems, not just at the Bread Basket camp," he said.
The colonel described, in graphic detail, how the rule of law collapsed in occupied southern Iraq after the British Army invaded and how the invading force was hard-pressed to restore order: "Looting was both psychotic and epidemic," he said, "There were hundreds and hundreds of people looting. They moved into buildings and stripped out carpets, wiring, everything. We realised that something had to be done," he added.
But the colonel stressed that soldiers received clear guidelines on how to treat prisoners and detained civilians through annual briefings, instructions in the laws of armed conflict and aide-memoires issued to them while on duty. The court martial was shown a 10-minute video instructing soldiers how to behave towards civilians that was used in army training.
"The guidelines were simply that civilian prisoners should be held for a maximum of two hours and then handed to the military police. An order that a civilian should be punished is completely outside the army's remit," he added.
Cpl Kenyon is accused of prejudicing a military order and abetting his two fellow NCOs at the Bread Basket Camp when they allegedly tortured and sexually humiliated Iraqi civilians who had been detained for looting on 15 May 2003. Lance Corporals Cooley and Larkin face charges of assault and disgraceful conduct of a cruel kind.
L/Cpl Larkin has pleaded guilty to a charge of assault. The other defendants have pleaded not guilty to all the charges but could face up to 10 years' imprisonment and dismissal in disgrace from the armed forces if convicted.
The lawyer representing Cpl Kenyon argued yesterday that the soldier was a victim of his senior officer who had issued orders for him to detain prisoners and work them hard.
Joseph Giret said his client was a first-rate soldier whose Army record had hitherto been exemplary until he was arrested in connection with the scandal. "Cpl Kenyon was in fact a war hero. He saved the lives of soldiers trapped in a Warrior combat vehicle and his service record is unblemished," Mr Giret added.
Using an argument expected to form the basis of the defence of the soldiers, Mr Giret said: "The only reason Cpl Kenyon is in the dock stems from those who gave the order to implement Operation Ali Baba."
Defence lawyers have claimed that the Ali Baba operation at the camp, a vast compound of warehouses on the outskirts of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, had created a climate which encouraged the accused to commit the alleged offences at the time.
Prosecution lawyers have admitted Major Taylor's alleged order to "work prisoners hard" was in breach of the Geneva Conventions. The court martial was earlier told by prosecution lawyers that Major Taylor's superior officers were aware he had issued an order which defied the Geneva convention, but had decided not to take legal action against him.
Judge Advocate Michael Hunter, who is presiding over the court martial, insisted yesterday that the trial would make no attempt to deal with alleged breaches of the Geneva Conventions in the case. "We are not here to decide issues of international law," he said.
The court martial continues.