Are these pictures a hoax or proof that we tortured Iraqis?

Andy McSmith, Andrew Johnson and Andrew Rosthorn reveal how the images of British soldiers abusing their prisoners made it from Iraq to the front pages

02 May 2004


One of the first questions obviously asked when yesterday's Daily Mirror published what it called "vile" pictures of British troops beating and tormenting Iraqi prisoners was whether they could be a hoax. Unlike the American troops pictured humiliating naked Iraqi captives, the British soldiers did not show their faces to the camera, avoiding immediate identification.

The images were in black and white and of unusually good quality and the timing and content seemed, from the newspaper's point of view, too good to be true.

On the other hand, neither the Ministry of Defence nor Downing Street raised any but the most formulaic of doubts as a full-scale inquiry was launched. In Accrington, the town where the regiment implicated is based, the reaction of old soldiers, saddened by what they had seen, was that they were genuine. Some of those who heard rogue squaddies bragging in the Accrington working men's club about the treatment they had dished out to Iraqi prisoners did not like what they were listening to.

Some of the younger ones seemed to think that tales of bullying and torture were a good laugh. Veterans of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the cold war found it stomach-turning.

"I told their ringleader it was unspeakable. Absolutely out of order," said Anthony "Sam" Quinn, 35, a former grenadier guardsman who served in Northern Ireland and Berlin. He added: "They were sitting round practising their Iraqi phrases. They showed us the pictures. It caused big trouble. One of them said: 'Don't get them out in here.'"

Two weeks ago, however, a soldier from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, who claimed to have taken part in the alleged violence, contacted the Mirror with the batch of photographs published yesterday. It took the newspaper a fortnight to satisfy itself that the photographs were genuine. The timing of their publication, a day after pictures showing Iraqi prisoners being abused by US troops were broadcast across the globe, was ­ from a newspaper standpoint ­ fortunate.

Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, said: "We've been investigating reports of abuse for a few weeks, and we were already investigating the reports when we received the photographs."

Its sister Sunday paper had its fingers burned when it repeated false allegations coming from an American reservist against the war hero Colonel Tim Collins, the retired commander of the First Battalion Royal Irish Regiment.

He, too, was accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners, but was cleared after an investigation by the Royal Military Police, and accepted an apology and substantial damages from the Sunday Mirror and Sunday Express.

The Government's prompt reaction, including calling in the Royal Military Police, allayed suspicions that the pictures were not genuine. In former times, when Tony Blair's government had the reputation of being run by spin-doctors, the reaction to bad news like this might have been to attempt to soften or "bury" it. This time, the immediate reaction was to condemn the pictures outright, even at the risk of falling for a hoax.

The Ministry of Defence was informed that the Daily Mirror had the photographs late on Friday afternoon. It was rapidly agreed between the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, and the military chiefs that General Sir Michael Jackson, Chief of General Staff, should appear on television to deliver the condemnation.

He said that the perpetrators were "not fit to wear the Queen's uniform". Downing Street backed him with a statement that "the Prime Minister fully endorses both the statement by General Sir Michael Jackson and the action he is taking".Lingering doubts remain about their authenticity, however.

The BBC reported last night that several queries are being raised by senior sources close the regiment. The rifle that one of the men is carrying is an outdated model, for instance, and the webbing and headgear is not standard issue for soldiers in that regiment serving in Iraq, they say.

Perhaps most worrying for the newspaper is the claim that the model of truck, a three-ton Bedford, has not been used in Iraq by the British Army. Then there are questions about the fact that the photographs are high-resolution black-and-white images. There were suggestions last night that they had been taken with equipment issued to the unit's intelligence branch ­ increasing speculation that they had been "stunted up".

A former regimental commander was reported as claiming: "The photographic and weapons intelligence sections which form the battalion intelligence unit both shoot with ... black and white film because the definition is better for that kind of work than colour film.

"There have been several cases of military photographers stunting up pictures and spoofing scenes for the private amusement of their colleagues."

The man pictured is obligingly wearing a T-shirt with the Iraqi national flag on it, a suspiciously convenient form of dress. There was also little physical evidence that corroborated the account of the savage beating meted out to the man as told to the newspaper by the soldiers who passed over the photograph.

Some of these doubts may have been going through the mind of Donald Anderson MP, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, when he was invited to comment on the Daily Mirror's photographs.

In the era of the spin-doctors, Mr Anderson was thought to be so off message that government whips tried to remove him from his post, but this time he test-drove all the arguments you would normally expect from a spin-doctor.

He argued that the photographs could be fake, that it would be interesting to know the motives of whoever passed them to the Daily Mirror, given the paper's stance on the war, and he pointed out that worse things were done to prisoners in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power. It would, of course, come as an immense relief to the Government and the military high command if the photographs turned out to be a hoax, but reactions yesterday suggested that they are braced for the worst.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: "We're taking the photographs incredibly seriously, and one of the key parts of the investigation is to identify whether they are genuine or not."

Additional reporting by Andrew Rosthorn