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Blair:  Allegations of Prisoner Abuse in Iraq Damaged Coalition's Cause - 2004-05-12


British Prime Minister Tony Blair says allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq have damaged the coalition's cause, but he says Britain has been dealing with complaints against its soldiers. The controversy dominated Mr. Blair's weekly appearance in parliament.

Prime Minister Blair told parliament he only learned on Monday of a three-month-old Red Cross report that had described the coalition's treatment of some prisoners in Iraq as "tantamount to torture."

But Mr. Blair played down the lapse, saying the British military was already investigating complaints against British troops raised in the report before it was delivered.

?There is no evidence whatever either of systematic abuse or of ministers or anyone else refusing to act on allegations of abuse in respect of detainees in British custody,? Mr. Blair said. On the contrary, the only evidence that has been presented are photographs that are almost certainly fake,? he added.

He was referring to photos recently published by the Daily Mirror newspaper purporting to show British troops beating an Iraqi prisoner. The defense ministry says a vehicle shown in the photos was never used in Iraq.

The leader of the opposition conservative party, Michael Howard, accused the government of incompetence in its handling of the Red Cross report.

?Iraq is by far the most sensitive and difficult challenge facing the country. People want to know that their government has a grip on what it is doing, and on what is going on,? he said. ?A devastating Red Cross report is sent to the government in February. The armed forces minister says he has never seen it. The defense secretary says he would not have expected to see it. The foreign secretary says he should have seen it but he did not. And the prime minister, to whose special envoy the report was given, says he knew nothing about it. How can the people of this country have confidence in this prime minister and his government??

Mr. Blair shot back that Mr. Howard was up to what he called "political mischief." The prime minister said it was time to rally behind the British troops.

?The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is this. It is not that in a democracy bad things do not happen,? Mr. Blair said. ?It is that when they do happen action is taken. Action has been taken in respect of each of these allegations in respect of British troops and I think now is the time to support the work that our troops are doing.?

In another development, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, told an interviewer the allegations of prisoner abuse were, in his words, "deeply shameful." He called the mistreatment "cruel", "horrible", and "degrading" and an indictment of the West.

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