We must rise above the moral mire of Iraq

23 May 2004

Even if the invasion of Iraq had been legal, moral and defensible, the conduct of the occupation would have destroyed its legitimacy. On our front page today we report that a British officer supervised the beating and abuse of Iraqi prisoners that led to the death of one of those held, Baha Mousa, according to new witness statements by the detainees who survived.

This is significant because it contradicts the "bad apple" defence of the British and American military - that the humiliation, torture and murder of Iraqi prisoners was the work of a few junior soldiers under inadequate supervision.

Mr Mousa died in British custody in September last year. It was not until January that this came to light, when The Independent on Sunday broke the story. By then, two soldiers who had been arrested by army investigators had been released. The Ministry of Defence told the IoS that there was "nothing in the records to suggest an inquiry was not still ongoing". In February it was reported that a private would be charged with manslaughter. Last weekend, we were told that charges were expected "in days". We are still waiting.

This is a pattern. So far, not a single British soldier has been charged or suspended for wrongdoing in Iraq, including the admitted illegal hooding of prisoners, which was stopped eight months ago. Disciplinary action only seems to be taken when journalists expose what has happened and outside pressure is maintained. That is why we can have little confidence that the British armed forces will pursue every possible incident of abuse with vigour. An independent investigation is required.

But if the conduct of the British occupying forces has fallen short of the ideal and the steps taken to atone for mistakes inadequate, that of the Americans has been deplorable. The latest images from the US are another window into a heart of darkness more depraved than could have been imagined. And there are more, and worse, to come.

In the American case, there is no question that responsibility for such extensive crimes reaches far up the chain of command. George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are guilty of setting the moral tone from the top, by making it clear that the supposed imperatives of the war on terror took precedence over human rights, from Bagram via Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. The policy of refusing even to estimate Iraqi casualties, military or civilian, sent the message through the system that - literally - they did not count. And there is sufficient evidence that the use of torture to extract information was explicitly or implicitly authorised by the higher ranks in the US military.

Even if the abuse of prisoners has stopped, the killing of women and children at a wedding party on the Syrian border last week suggests that US commanders have yet to instil a respect for civilian life throughout their forces. When General Mark Kimmitt defended the massacre on the basis of "credible intelligence" it was enough to induce despair.

A British policy of complete openness and independent scrutiny is essential to separate our forces from the moral contagion of the American occupation. There is little enough honour left in this venture, but Tony Blair could salvage a worthwhile fragment if he showed remorse and a genuine determination to require the highest standards of conduct from British forces.