AMARAH, Iraq (AP) – At least two Iraqis claiming to have been beaten by British soldiers during a 2004 demonstration said Tuesday that they would take legal action against the British military and seek compensation.
The British military also said provincial authorities in the main southern city of Basra, where most of Britain’s more than 8,000 troops in Iraq are based, suspended relations with the British on Monday.
The moves came a day after footage emerged showing several Iraqi youths allegedly being beaten by British soldiers in the Maysan provincial city of Amarah.
It was unclear if provincial officials in Maysan, which borders Basra province to the north, would take similar action.
But several Iraqis came forward Tuesday claiming they were among those allegedly abused by British troops during a 2004 protest in the Maysan provincial city of Amarah, 290 kilometers (180 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
It was not immediately possible to verify whether the Iraqis were those caught on the video allegedly shot by a British soldier. It showed several Iraqis being punched, beaten with batons and kicked following a protest in Amarah in January 2004.
“I was one of 250 unemployed people demonstrating in the street in 2004, but when we reached the governor’s office we were surprised by the presence of the British forces,” Bassem Shaker, 27, told The Associated Press. “We started throwing stones at them because we believed that they were behind all our misery.”
At the time of the Jan. 10, 2004 protest, the British military said shots were heard coming from among hundreds of protesters who had gathered in front of the office of the U.S.-led coalition to demand jobs, and that Iraqi police, thinking they were under attack, opened fire. Witnesses and officials said that British troops and Iraqi police had fired at armed, stone-throwing protesters, killing six people and wounding 11.
British soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Light Infantry, which were based in Amarah at the time, were seen moving in with armored vehicles to support the police, according to witness reports at the time. Assailants in the crowd lobbed three explosive devices at them, believed to be hand grenades, the British military reported later that day.
Speaking at the office of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Shaker said British troops fired volleys of rubber bullets at the protesters in a bid to disperse them.
“Then a group of British soldiers rushed out from their base and arrested nine of us, dragging us for about 30 meters (yards) to the governor’s office,” Shaker alleged. “They were beating us with fists and batons and were kicking us. Then they cuffed our hands and also dragged us to their base, which is about 15 meters (yards) from the governor’s office, where they also beat us and frightened us with dogs before releasing us before sunset.”
Shaker said he didn’t report the abuse initially because he did not believe any officials would deal with their complaints because they involved British troops.
“But when we saw this tape and the amount of anger it caused inside and outside Iraq, we decided to come today to the al-Sadr office because we need them, after God, to help us to sue the British forces and compensate us.
“Those troops humiliated us and violated our rights to demand jobs.”
Al-Sadr official Sheik Oda al-Bahrani said Shaker and 14-year-old Tariq Abdul-Razzak both claimed they had been beaten and requested help to sue the British military and seek compensation.
Al-Sadr has strong support throughout southern Iraq and has been demanding the withdrawal of coalition forces throughout the country. Along with presenting the alleged Iraqi abuse victims to reporters, al-Sadr supporters have staged multiple protests against caricatures of Prophet Mohammad deemed insulting to Muslim that have been published in Danish and other newspapers.
British military spokesman Capt. James St. John-Price said the British wanted to conduct a thorough investigation into the abuse allegations, but it was not immediately clear if they would try to interview those purporting to be victims.
St. John-Price, based in Basra, also said provincial authorities there had severed contacts with the British, but he was unsure whether that was included only the military or diplomatic and economic ties with Britain.
“The (Basra) provincial council has decided to suspend relations with the British,” St. John-Price told The Associated Press.
It was also unclear if Iraqi police forces, which had been conducting joint-patrols with British forces, would heed the council decision to cut ties, St. John-Price said. “We are hopeful that the IPS (Iraqi police services) will keep carrying out joint-patrols,” he said.
He said he was uncertain if Iraqi police, which are under the control of the national government in Baghdad, had decided to stop cooperating with the British military in Basra, where the bulk of Britain’s more than 8,000 forces are based.
British-Iraqi relations in Basra have suffered in recent weeks amid protests over British arrests of local policemen linked to militia-related killings and kidnappings and British security control over Basra International Airport.
The video footage was first obtained by the British Sunday newspaper, News of the World, and sparked condemnations across the Middle East and Britain. The British military has launched an investigation and at least one man has been detained in relation to the probe.