DAMASCUS // British soldiers in Iraq always prided themselves on being more humane and competent than their brasher, heavily armed American cousins. British officers would condescendingly talk about US troops barging their way around Baghdad, alienating locals - or torturing them in Abu Ghraib prison, contrasting such crude methods with their own politically astute, hearts-and-minds techniques in Basra.
But with the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war continuing in London, and with Whitehall investigating new allegations that its forces tortured prisoners before their withdrawal last year, there are clear signs the British were much less well behaved than they like to claim. In the early months of the war, Yusif, an Iraqi now living as a refugee in Syria, was caught up in a midnight raid by the British as they searched for suspected weapons traders. After the inevitable fear caused by soldiers smashing through his front door, Yusif, 20 at the time, said he and his family were initially treated well.
Things quickly deteriorated however when he was arrested and interrogated. "My sister was educated in Manchester and spoke English well, so we had no real problems at first," he said in an interview, asking that his full name not be used. "The soldiers were very polite, my father is an old man and they didn't handcuff him, they were respectful and one of the officers stopped an interpreter from stealing a mobile phone from us."
Yusif and his elder brother were taken to a British camp in central Basra, together with 22 other men from their neighbourhood, rounded up in the same raid. That was when the problems began. "I was handcuffed and blindfolded, but not very well and I could see underneath it," he recalled. "There was a lot of shouting and one of the soldiers was shouting at me and then I heard him cock his rifle, as if he'd put in a bullet and was preparing to shoot. Then he pointed the gun at my head. There was some kind of light on it, a laser or something, and it was right between my eyes. I was terrified; I thought I was going to be shot."
Educated at a British school in Kuwait as a child - he did not speak Arabic until he was six years old - Yusif said he asked in English if he was to be executed. "An officer or something must have been there because he said to me, 'oh no, we're the British army, we won't do that, but if you don't tell us the truth about being a weapons dealer, we'll hand you to the Americans and they will kill you'."
After that Yusif and the other prisoners were taken to a room and questioned. One of their neighbours was a naturalised Australian Iraqi, who had returned after the March 2003 invasion to visit his family. According to Yusif, the man began to complain that the British troops were violating his rights. "He was cursing them and saying that they were breaking his human rights and that made them angry and they started beating him. He was screaming and they were beating him pretty hard. I could see them hitting with rifle butts. He was handcuffed at the time, and blindfolded. Later we found out that they'd broken one of his ribs."
The men were held for the night. It was winter and the air conditioner was pumping out freezing air, Yusif said. In the morning they were told they would be released but that first they must sign a paper. "We were not allowed to read it, or to see what we were signing," he said. "We all signed anyway, except one man. The British tied his hands and feet and threw him outside. They left him to lie in the sun all day. After that they brought him in and he signed the papers."
It is not possible to independently verify Yusif's account, but another Iraqi, detained as part of the same raid, confirmed the details. Rather than being released, as had been promised, the detainees were transferred to Camp Bucca, a prison outside of Basra. There, Yusif said, their treatment improved. "We were given medical check-ups and had no problems there. Everyone was respectful with us and one of the officers said we had been arrested by mistake. We were freed after a few days.
"But I was really surprised by how we were treated by the British forces. I had this idea of the British as fair and kind because that's how my English teachers had been when I was young in Kuwait. I was sad to see the other side. I still have the occasional nightmare thinking about it." Another Iraqi now living as a refugee in Syria saw British military operations from the other side of the fence. He worked as an interpreter with the units going on raids. By his account, the British did not always treat their prisoners within the terms of international law.
"We were on a mission in Manawi Pashsa [an area of Basra] in 2006, and we went in to get a guy who was a murderer, a big militia guy," he said. "In his house we found an anti-aircraft gun, so the soldiers messed with him. "He was blindfolded and handcuffed and they smashed his head up against the wall. His head was really hitting that wall hard: you could hear it. He kept yelling and they kept smashing his head like that, there was a 'smack' when it hit the wall. They must have done it 10 times. Then they started poking him with their rifle barrels, jamming them into his body. He was screaming about it."
The former interpreter, who asked to be named only as Abbas, said the soldiers then asked him if he wanted to beat the prisoner. "I told them they'd done enough, but not because I felt sorry for him," he explained. "He got what he deserved. There were guns in that house; he was a bad man, he deserved to be hurt. He'd hurt other people." His account of the incident also cannot be independently verified, but Abbas said such beatings were the exception rather than the norm. "To be honest, that was the only real violence I saw from them. They were pretty good; they would treat the women with respect. They would pay for damage done to any property. The officers would make sure soldiers were not stealing anything."
After serving almost a year with the British military, Abbas took a better-paid job with US troops, working as an interpreter for special forces operating in Haditha. "The Americans were totally different with their prisoners to the British," he said. "They would beat the hell out of them. It was different up there [in central Iraq]. Once they had a kid from Saudi Arabia, he was hardly a teenager. He'd had a suicide bomb vest, but it had failed to blow up and the Americans slapped him around, kicked him trying to get information."
When that failed, Abbas said, they took him to the local Iraqi army unit. "They told him that unless he talked, he'd be raped by every man in the room. He still didn't say anything but the first Iraqi soldier unbuckled his belt and he started talking. "In a way that says it all. The Americans were bad with their prisoners. The British weren't perfect but they were angels compared to the Iraqis." In 2008, the UK's ministry of defence agreed to pay £2.83 million (Dh17m) in damages in the case of 10 Iraqis who were tortured. The decision followed a six-month court martial which led to one soldier being jailed for a year for abusing the detainees. Six others were cleared of the charges.