The British Defense Secretary has reportedly barred soldiers – targeted by an inquiry into alleged war crimes during the Iraq War – from speaking out about the investigators’ tactics before a parliamentary committee. The inquiry has been criticized for its heavy-handed methods.
Three soldiers who are being investigated by the government-run Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) have been barred from speaking to the Parliament’s defense select committee, according to a letter from British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon seen by the Sunday Times.
The soldiers reportedly volunteered to tell MPs about actions by the IHAT investigators and present evidence of how the probe “destroyed the careers and shattered the mental health of some soldiers,” the newspaper’s report said.
One soldier was also willing to accuse the MoD of “leaving them to rot” and providing “zero support” to soldiers and veterans under IHAT investigation.
Another senior officer who wanted to speak out on the same issue was reportedly stopped by the Defense Ministry, according to the Sunday Times. “I have been gagged by the SoS [secretary of state] from giving evidence to the committee,” one of the soldiers wrote in an email to the Tory MP Johnny Mercer.
The day prior to the meeting with MPs, the soldiers were notified that they had been blocked from appearing before the select committee.
“Much as I recognize the importance of the matter, I am unable to grant permission for these three serving personnel to provide evidence in the manner you have outlined,” Fallon said in a letter to Julian Lewis, the chairman of the committee, cited by the daily.
Mercer denounced the Ministry’s policy, saying, “If the MoD is seriously committed to looking after our people, they will let these individuals give me their evidence.”
IHAT has been set up and funded by the British government to review and investigate 1,490 cases of war crimes and abuse against civilians committed by UK forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.
“The alleged offenses range from murder to low-level violence and the time period covers the start of the military campaign in Iraq, in March 2003,” their official website reads.
The organization employs 145 detectives, including Royal Navy Police personnel, civilian investigators and civil servants, with some service members complaining about IHAT’s rough practices.
One soldier told the Sunday Times that the organization’s detectives browse social media in search for evidence and persuade military personnel to inform on their colleagues. Some witnesses have been reportedly told to remove negative comments about IHAT.
Another soldier, who the detectives regarded as a potential witness, said he met them in a shopping center and was then led to a car park where an interview took place. “I was ordered not to contact any of my friends that had been interviewed,” a soldier interrogated by IHAT told the daily.
Critics of the IHAT investigation argued that it resembles a ‘witch hunt’ and treats active-duty soldiers and veterans improperly.
“I am very sorry that our soldiers and their families have been put through this ordeal,” former PM Tony Blair also told the Sunday Telegraph following the publication in the Times.
“Our armed forces gave extraordinary service in both Iraq and Afghanistan and this type of investigation simply makes their job harder to do,” he added.
However, the former PM is now at the center of renewed controversy following the publication of the damming Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, which was published in July. It concluded, “military action at that time was not a last resort.” Families of some of the British soldiers killed in that war have been crowdfunding to hire a legal team to sue Blair.
The MOD has in turn said it was “nonsense” to speak of gagging:
“We have a longstanding policy that serving personnel do not give evidence to committees in a personal capacity and it would be inappropriate to expect these individuals to do so while legal proceedings are ongoing.”
In the meantime, Mercer, who was an Army captain during the war in Afghanistan, told the Sunday Times “the hounding of British troops” may contribute to creating a disillusioned and asocial ‘Vietnam generation’ of former soldiers.
“How we treat this Afghanistan and Iraq warrior generation will define this country’s relationship with its military for the next 50 years, and at the moment it is not going well.”