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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Iraq War

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Iraq War.

When did this conflict occur?

20th March, 2003^ – 15th December, 2011*

^Though British combat operations alongside the US-led coalition formally began on the 20th of March, 2003, the UK Ministry of Defence considered service in the Iraqi area of operations from the 20th of January to warrant the Iraq Medal. [1]

* – British combat forces largely withdrew from Iraq in July of 2009, but limited contingents of personnel tasked with training Iraqi security forces remained until May of 2011 under Op Telic and beyond as part of NATO Mission Iraq. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

The aftermath of the 1990-1991 First Gulf War saw the forced expulsion of Iraq from neighbouring Kuwait and the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s military forces. Though an uncoordinated 1991 uprising comprising minority Kurds, Shia Arabs, and military mutineers attempted to remove the ruling Ba’ath Party from power, Saddam Hussein retained control of much of Southern Iraq. In the North, the uprising succeeded in establishing a Kurdish Autonomous Region, while the international community maintained a no-fly zone overhead to ensure the protection of dissident forces. [3]  Amidst this, the UN introduced economic sanctions against Iraq and pursued the destruction of weapons of mass destruction developed by Saddam Hussein prior to the First Gulf War, a process declared largely complete by the United Nations Special Commission in 1996. [4] Nonetheless, allegations of WMD development, perpetuated by elements of the US and UK intelligence community, continued and escalated in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. When combined with a mistaken US belief that Iraq had provided technical and financial support to al-Qaeda, President Bush declared an end to diplomacy in March of 2003 and demanded that Saddam Hussein depart Iraq within 48 hours. [5] Saddam Hussein’s refusal marked the start of combat operations in Iraq; though the US, UK, and their coalition partners succeeded in achieving their political aims, with Saddam captured and later executed in 2006, no evidence of WMDs was recovered. [6] The invasion also upset the delicate power of balance between the country’s major ethnic groups and, following the Coalition Provisional Authority’s decision to disband Iraq’s Sunni-dominated security apparatus, coalition forces found themselves embroiled in a bitter counterinsurgency campaign against former Iraqi servicemembers as well as a nascent al-Qaeda insurgency led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006 and the insurgency weakened through a combined surge of foreign troops as well as a “Sunni Awakening”, where Sunni tribes mobilised to work alongside the Shia government; Zarqawi’s organisation, however, survived and subsequently rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq. [7] Nonetheless, coalition combat operations ended in 2011, and, throughout the country, international troops surrendered security responsibilities to Iraqi security forces before transitioning into a limited training role that continues to this day. 

What role did British military forces play?

The British military effort in Iraq, referred to as Operation Telic, constituted one of the largest deployments of UK forces in the aftermath of the Second World War. Approximately 149000 personnel drawn from all four services were involved in Op Telic’s thirteen rotations and participated in all major aspects of the campaign. [8] British ground forces centred around the 1st Armoured Division, consisting of elements such as 16th Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade secured vital points in Southern Iraq, during the initial invasion while special operations forces drawn from the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service infiltrated Western Iraq in search of Scud ballistic missile systems. [9] Upon the collapse of organised Iraqi military forces and the capture of Baghdad in April, British troops transitioned into a stability operations role and were tasked with quelling violence in four Southern provinces covering 96000 square kilometres and 4.6 million Iraqis: al-Muthanna, Maysan, al-Basra, and Dhi Qar. [10] Headquartered in Basra Palace, the British-led Multi-National Division (South East) combated a growing insurgency while also working to raise a new Iraqi security apparatus; simultaneously, elements of UK Special Forces, including 22 SAS and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, also maintained a consistent presence in Baghdad as part of Task Force Knight, a joint task force aimed at capturing or killing high value targets from the Ba’ath Party as well as a nascent al-Qaeda in Iraq. [11] Largely withdrawn in 2009, British troops, primarily from the Royal Navy, retained a presence under Op Telic until 2011. Their primary responsibility remained centred on advising and assisting Iraqi military, paramilitary, and police forces, and it was not until the beginning of Op Shader against the Islamic State in 2014 that British forces resumed offensive operations in Iraq.

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the Iraq War, there were 107 confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 107 civilian deaths, 179 British military personnel died in the conflict, with 139 of these deaths being due to hostile action. [12]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Of the 107 noncombatant fatalities stemming from British military action, at least seven are believed by the International Criminal Court, in a December 2020 report titled “Situation in Iraq/UK: Final Report”, to constitute clear violations of the laws of armed conflict. Additionally, though it is beyond the scope of this AOAV investigation, the ICC report also concluded there was a reasonable basis to suspect that British forces had engaged in acts of torture and sexual violence in this same period. [13]

  • 11th April, 2003: Iraqi national Tariq Sabri Mahmud died while being detained aboard an RAF Chinook that was transporting him as well as nine other prisoners. While attempting to resist his members of II Squadron, the Royal Air Force Regiment, Tariq was forcibly restrained, hooded, and placed on the floor of the aircraft, where he was later found deceased upon arrival at a US detention facility. [14, 15]
  • May 2003:  In two separate instances, two Iraqi men, Rhadi Nama and Abdul Jabbar Mossa Ali, died shortly after being detained by British servicemembers of the Black Watch Regiment at Camp Stephen, Basra. A subsequent inquiry by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team found that the regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Riddell-Webster, had been warned by the Black Watch’s chaplain of a pattern of detainee abuse in Camp Stephen prior to the two men’s deaths. [16]
  • 8th May, 2003: 15-year-old Ahmed Jabber Kareem Ali drowned in the Shatt al-Arab River after being forced into the water by British troops belonging to No. 1 Company, 1 Irish Guards. Ali, alongside three other men, had previously been detained amidst looting in Basra by British servicemembers and local Iraqi police. [17, 18]
  • 11th May, 2003: Naheem Abdullah was killed by blunt force trauma to the left side of his head after being detained by members of Third Battalion, the Parachute Regiment at a roadblock North of Basra. A Royal Military Police investigation resulted in charges of murder against seven British servicemembers which were dismissed at a subsequent court martial by the Judge Advocate. [19]
  • 23rd May, 2003: Iraqi national Sayeed Radhi Shabram Wawi Al-Bazooni drowned in the Shatt al-Arab River after British servicemembers from 26 Armoured Engineer Squadron attempted to detain him and another local civilian for stealing electrical cables. Though a subsequent investigation found no evidence that British troops had pushed Sayeed Shabraham, Iraqi witnesses maintain that Shabraham was forced into the river. [20, 21]
  • 14th September, 2003 -16th September, 2003: 26-year-old Baha Mousa died after being subjected to food and sleep deprivation, hooding, and stress positions by British troops of the 1st Battalion, Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, at the Battlegroup Main Camp in Basra. [22]

Endnotes

[1] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[2] UK’s Operation Telic mission in Iraq ends, BBC News, 2011, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13488078

[3] Silliman, Scott, “The Iraqi Quagmire: Enforcing the No-Fly Zones,” New England Law Review 36, no. 4 (2002): 768.

[4] Iraq WMD Timeline: How the Mystery Unraveled, NPR, 2005, https://www.npr.org/2005/11/15/4996218/iraq-wmd-timeline-how-the-mystery-unraveled

[5] Full text: Bush’s speech, The Guardian, 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/18/usa.iraq

[6] Schwartz, Jon, “Twelve Years Later, US Media Still Can’t Get Iraqi WMD Story Right,” The Intercept, 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/04/10/twelve-years-later-u-s-media-still-cant-get-iraqi-wmd-story-right/

[7] Hamasaeed, Sarhang and Garrett Nada, “Iraq Timeline: Since the 2003 War”, United States Institute of Peace, 2020, https://www.usip.org/iraq-timeline-2003-war

[8] FOI 2015 01104: Total British Armed Forces personnel deployed within the UK, overseas or specific country of operations/conflict zone April 2007 to October 2014, Ministry of Defence, 2015, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/412959/PUBLIC_1425293223.pdf

[9] Iraq War: The Invasion, National Army Museum, 2017, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/iraq-war-invasion

[10] CASE OF AL-SKEINI AND OTHERS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM, European Court of Human Rights, 2011, https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/fre#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-105606%22]}

[11] Urban, Mark. Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War In Iraq (London: Abacus, 2011): 229.

[12] British Fatalities, Operations in Iraq, Ministry of Defence, https://www.gov.uk/government/fields-of-operation/iraq

[13] Office of the Prosecutor. Situation in Iraq/UK: Final Report (The Hague: International Criminal Court, 2020): 4.

[14] Office of the Prosecutor, Situation in Iraq/UK, 79-80.

[15] Investigation into the death of Tariq Sabri Mahmud, Gov.UK, 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/investigation-into-the-death-of-tariq-sabri-mahmud

[16] Office of the Prosecutor, Situation in Iraq/UK, 136.

[17] Office of the Prosecutor, Situation in Iraq/UK, 81.

[18] Newman, George. The Iraq Fatality Investigations: REPORT into the death of AHMED JABBAR KAREEM ALI (London: Gov.UK, 2016): 16-18.

[19] Office of the Prosecutor, Situation in Iraq/UK, 80.

[20] Office of the Prosecutor, Situation in Iraq/UK, 81-84.

[21] Hallett, Heather. The Iraq Fatality Investigations: CONSOLIDATED REPORT into the death of Saeed Radhi Shabram Wawi Al-Bazooni (London: Gov.UK, 2020): 5-6.

[22] Office of the Prosecutor, Situation in Iraq/UK, 21.