Al-Sweady inquiry: Decorated soldier denies Iraqi abuse claims

An unidentified British soldier stands over some of the detainees who have since given evidence to the inquiry Image copyright PA
Image caption The Iraqis were detained by British troops after a fierce battle

A UK soldier decorated for bravery in the 2004 Iraq battle of Danny Boy has told an inquiry prisoners he held were not mistreated.

Former Cpl Mark Byles said some Iraqi prisoners were hooded with sandbags.

He said he saw well over 20 Iraqis dead on the battlefield and had killed "a handful" himself by rifle fire.

The Al-Sweady inquiry is examining claims - denied by the Ministry of Defence - that troops mistreated and unlawfully killed Iraqi detainees.

After his deployment to Iraq, the former corporal was awarded the Military Cross for "immense professionalism under fire" and bravery in leading an assault on an enemy position.

Image copyright Metropolitan Police
Image caption Abu Mansha put Cpl Byles on his hit-list

However, his experiences during the war had a major impact on the soldier's life, and he left the Army in 2008 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Appearing via video link, Mr Byles said he had never spoken to the Sun, and had not killed up to 20 Iraqis as it reported - but that an account of his role in the battle in the Sunday Times had been accurate: "I could see some dead bodies and (four) blokes, some scrambling for their weapons. I've never seen such a look of fear in anyone's eyes before.

"I'm over six feet, I was covered in sweat, angry, red in the face, charging in with a bayonet and screaming my head off. You would be scared too."

He told the inquiry that he had taken the decision to fix bayonets, even though there had been no explicit order to do so, and used his rifle to kill several Iraqi insurgents pointing weapons at him.

However, Mr Byles insisted that he had not witnessed "any mistreatment of the Iraqi dead on the battlefield or in the vehicles".

"They were all treated with respect. All the injuries looked sustained from battle," he said.

Iraqi witnesses have claimed at the inquiry that some Iraqis were taken alive from the battlefield but later killed at a British camp outside Majar-al-Kabir in southern Iraq, an allegation denied by the military witnesses.

Towards the end of the fight, as he stormed a trench, Mr Byles admitted that he had to use force on the enemy "to get them to surrender".

He told the inquiry that he had had to use his fists and the back of his rifle because "they were standing up in the trench at the time, being violent, aggressive, still armed, wouldn't put the weapons down.

"I had to get them down onto the ground to prevent ourselves from getting shot, myself from getting shot and the others from getting shot," he said.

Sandbags and handcuffs

Mr Byles said detainees had initially had sandbags put over their heads, and were put in plastic handcuffs.

He said he did not recall any instruction saying that sandbags were not to be used to deprive prisoners of their sight.

He also described being issued with radios that could not communicate with one another, or on the frequencies provided, a point made by many of the British soldiers at the inquiry.

In 2005, Mark Byles's address was found on a potential "hit-list" compiled by market stall-holder Abu Mansha from Thamesmead in south-east London.

The trader was jailed for six years, and the court heard that he had singled out Cpl Byles after reading a story in the Sun newspaper describing how the soldier had led a bayonet charge in which he killed "up to 20" Iraqi insurgents.

The former soldier is one of more than 200 witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry in the run-up to Christmas. It is due to report back next year.

The public inquiry was set up in 2010 and is named after one of the Iraqi men, 19-year-old Hamid al-Sweady, who is alleged to have been unlawfully killed while being held after the battle.

Specifically, the inquiry is examining claims that 20 or more Iraqis were unlawfully killed at Camp Abu Naji military base on 14 and 15 May 2004 after being taken prisoner during the battle, and that several other detainees were ill-treated after capture.

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