Revealed: how an army raid for guns led to death and a growing scandal

By Cahal Milmo

08 May 2004

Independent

The men from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment pulled up in front of the dusty marble reception of the Ibn Al Haitham Hotel at about 6am.

Climbing from an armoured personnel carrier and several camouflaged Land Rovers, they were carrying out what the Army described as an "anti-terrorist and anti-criminal operation" in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

The more prosaic reality was that intelligence officers had received a tip-off that the tatty modern hotel, owned by three businessmen, was being used to hide a cache of weapons of unknown vintage.

Some reports suggest the troops might have been stirred up after an officer from their regiment was killed in a roadside ambush on an Army ambulance near Basra a month earlier. Others insist it was a routine raid to frustrate attacks on Allied forces. Whatever their motivation, the soldiers who arrived at the Haitham Hotel were in no mood for winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

Within four days of the raid on 14 September last year, Baha Mousa, 26, a hotel receptionist, was dead, allegedly from terrible injuries suffered at the hands of his "interrogators" after he and six other hotel employees were arrested and taken to a British Army interrogation centre.

His death is arguably the most horrific of 13 which will be presented to the High Court in London on Tuesday as part of a compensation claim by the families of Iraqis allegedly killed by the British Army.

In a witness statement given to his British lawyers, Baha Mousa's father, Daoud Mousa, a colonel in the Iraqi police, said: "When I saw the corpse I burst into tears. I was horrified to see that my son had been severely beaten and his body was literally covered in blood and bruises.

"He had a badly broken nose. There was blood coming from his nose and mouth. The skin on one side of his face had been torn away to reveal the flesh beneath. There were severe patches of bruising over all of his body.

"The skin on his wrists had been torn off and the skin on his forehead torn away. There was no skin under his eyes either. I literally could not bear to look at him."

Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence said it believed claims made to the Daily Mirror by "Soldier C", a Territorial Army reservist, that four Iraqi prisoners suffered a horrific beating, were related to arrests made at the hotel. An MoD spokeswoman said: "We believe that the allegations made by 'Soldier C' relate to the same incident as the death of Baha Mousa."

The admission puts the Haitham Hotel raid and what happened in its aftermath at the centre of the most damaging allegations yet about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of British soldiers - in particular the men of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment (QLR).

The British Army refused to give an account of the hotel raid and subsequent interrogations by saying that it was the subject of a report by the special investigations branch of the Royal Military Police, which is now being considered by Army prosecutors.

As a result, a picture of what took place can only be built from the sworn statements of Iraqi witnesses and the accounts of British soldiers.

Army sources confirmed yesterday that the search was carried out by men from the QLR and its original intention was to find weapons suspected of being used by rebels. One source said: "There had been a tip-off that the hotel was being used to hide a cache of weaponry, including automatic machine guns, RPGs and ammunition. As it turned out, the intelligence was correct - a cache was found." By the standards of post-war Iraq, the haul was modest. Three Kalashnikov rifles were found behind the reception desk, kept, according to the hotel management, to protect the premises. After forcing open a safe in a room rented as an office by one of the hotel's owners, Haitham Dharir Ali, the soldiers also found an Iraqi military uniform, two pistols and two automatic rifles.

Daoud Mousa, who had arrived at the hotel at the same time as the British soldiers to pick up his son at the end of his overnight shift, complained to the officer commanding the raid, named only as Second Lieutenant Mike, after allegedly seeing three of the men putting money from the safe into their pockets.

The men were reprimanded, made to return the money and ordered back inside the personnel carrier. The retired Iraqi police officer later said he thought that his success in embarrassing the British officer led to his son being singled out for the beatings.

For the QLR search party, it seems that the discovery of weapons in the safe was grounds for arresting those who worked in proximity to it.

Seven of the hotel's employees, including Mr Mousa, were rounded up and made to lie face down on the floor of the lobby with their hands behind their heads.

When the men failed to reveal the whereabouts of Haitham Ali, who had disappeared by the time of the raid and remains in hiding, it is alleged that the beatings, which were to last over the next 48 hours, began.

Kifah Taha, 44, an engineer who was working at the hotel and claims he was so badly kicked and beaten that he suffered acute renal failure which put him in hospital for two months, said the group were initially taken to the hotel toilets.

In his witness statement for the High Court action, Mr Taha said: "They started to beat us with their fists and boots. They made us lie on the floor and soldiers stood on our heads.

"One of the detainees was made to stand inside the oriental toilet at ground level and the flush was repeatedly turned on as a form of humiliation. After the beating, we were hooded and our hands were wired."

The group was taken to Darul Dhyafa, a British interrogation centre in Basra. The building had once been the headquarters for Ali Majid, or Chemical Ali, the man responsible for gassing thousands of Kurds under Saddam Hussein.

Soldier C, a reservist attached to the QLR, said he witnessed the repeated beating of four men who were forced to wear sand bags over their heads. The soldier, who has been interviewed by military police, told the Daily Mirror that he saw one unnamed corporal push his fingers into the eyeballs of one hooded prisoner until he screamed with pain.

He added: "They'd be on their knees and when they dropped their hands they'd be kicked until they raised them again. The main thing was holding prisoners' hands up and they'd whack them in the ribs. It would happen on every shift. Whenever guards changed over, they'd all do the same. So these guys would just get a continual battering."

The account coincides remarkably with that of Mr Taha. In his witness statement, the Iraqi said: "We were made to stand by a wall and stretch out our arms horizontally. We were warned that if we bent our arms of heads we would be beaten.

"As it was impossible to keep our arms straight for more than a few minutes, we were beaten and the beatings covered our neck, chest and genital areas."

A report by a British medical officer who examined Mr Taha when he was admitted to a field hospital late on 16 September said: "It appears he was assaulted approximately 72 hours ago and sustained severe bruising to his upper abdomen, right side of chest, left forearms and left upper inner thigh."

Of the six men who survived their incarceration, two, including Mr Taha, required hospital treatment. None were charged with any offence.

Soldier C alleged that QLR officers, who had known of the beatings, later denied to military police that they took place.

It is claimed that the worst treatment was reserved for Baha Mousa, who was beaten by two or more soldiers at a time, even while lying prone on the floor. Mr Taha claims that, on the third night of his detention, he heard Mr Mousa say: "I am dying ... blood ... blood."

When death certificate number 2CIVM1169 was later issued to Baha's father, it gave the cause of death as "cardiorespiratory arrest: asphyxia". Written in the box set aside to explain the source of the injury were the words: "Unknown - refer to coroner."