Thursday, 22 May 2008

An annivesary celebrated with gag orders

The Daily Star
Tuesday 1 April 2008
By Michael Glackin
A good deal of political hot air was expended in the United Kingdom marking last month's fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Although it was noticeable that there were no parades in Iraq celebrating what Prime Minister Gordon Brown described as the country's "liberation," we in the West got very excited about the whole affair.

US President George W. Bush treated us to his own version of French chanteuse Edith Piaf's classic song, "Je ne regrette rein," or I regret nothing. Failures in postwar planning, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the continuing carnage in Iraq are mere details it seems. In the UK, Brown marked the occasion by having his government launch legal action to prevent coroners from using inquests into military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq as an excuse to blame the Defense Ministry and Brown himself for having played a role in their killings.

Because bodies of British servicemen are brought back to Britain through a Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire, it falls to the area's local coroner to conduct a formal inquest into their deaths. In the UK it is the coroner's legal duty to ascertain the cause of death, and to report any irregularities or failings that may have contributed to it.

It is, to say the least, a highly unusual move by a government in any democracy to attempt to silence an independent law officer. But the Oxfordshire coroner has consistently found the Defense Ministry at fault for many of the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than one inquest has accused the ministry of "serious failings." Defense Secretary Des Browne insists the phrase "serious failings" is tantamount to blaming the government for the deaths, and fears families of dead soldiers will use the coroner's critical comments to sue for compensation.

The particular coroner the government most wants to silence is Oxfordshire's assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker. While investigating the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull, who was killed in a "friendly fire" incident involving an American A-10 plane in Iraq in 2003, Walker attacked the Pentagon for its lack of cooperation and delivered a verdict that the lance corporal's death was unlawful. During the inquest into the death of ITN journalist Terry Lloyd, who was killed when caught in a crossfire between the United States military and insurgents in Iraq in 2003, Walker recorded a verdict of unlawful killing and again criticized the US for failing to cooperate with the inquest.

But it is Walker's criticism of the Defense Ministry, but also the Treasury when Gordon Brown was chancellor, that has stuck in the craw of the government. Walker has consistently blamed shortages of military equipment for contributing to the deaths of a number of servicemen.

During an inquest last month into the death of Captain James Philippson, who died during a gun fight with the Taliban in Helmand Province in 2006, it emerged that Philippson and his unit lacked the necessary night-vision goggles, machine guns, and grenade launchers when they went into battle. Walker said, "To send soldiers into a combat zone without basic equipment is unforgivable, inexcusable and a breach of trust between the soldiers and those who govern them."

The government's cynical move to prevent coroners making these kinds of comments comes just after it emerged that Walker's contract as the Oxfordshire assistant deputy coroner will not be renewed. He will instead take up a post as coroner in London where he is unlikely to preside over any other military-related inquests.

It is impossible to say with any certainty that Walker's change of job is linked to his criticism of government. But what is clear is that for a war that was intent on bringing democracy and open government to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is extremely ironic that the British government is expending much energy in trying to silence people and keep things secret.

Without these inquests and judgments, the British public, not to mention the families of those killed, would be kept in the dark about the exact circumstances of soldiers' deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. But sadly this is how Brown's government wants things to be done. Under the guise of protecting national security the government also wants to lock people up without charging them for 42 days. It is, similarly, pressing ahead with the introduction of national identity cards, something last used in Britain during the dark days of World War II.

And two weeks ago Brown again sidestepped calls for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the British decision to go to war in Iraq, insisting he would hold one "when it is appropriate." Bearing in mind Brown's intense dislike of Tony Blair, the architect of the war, an investigation may well be in the cards at some point. But considering Brown's own support for the war, don't hold your breath waiting.

Meanwhile, the much-heralded final pullout of British troops from Basra airport is now likely to be delayed until 2009. Basra hasn't been under Iraqi government control for months and the "success" of the British Army's work there is evidenced by the current fighting, with the Iraqi Army trying to reclaim the city from the destructive and murderous grip of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, which has ruled Basra since the British soldiers withdrew to the airport.

The government in London can gag coroners, deny inquiries, and erode civil liberties all it wants, but it cannot gloss over the reality of Iraq five years after its "liberation." The country has been broken by the invasion, and the West has no idea about how to put it back together again.

Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a freelance journalist.

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