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Straw in Iraq amid abuse furore

He is expected to talk to a cross-section of Iraqi politicians currently negotiating the formation of the new government in Baghdad.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2006 19:34 IST

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was to hold talks on Tuesday with incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani amid a raging controversy of alleged abuse of Iraqi youths by British soldiers.

Straw arrived unannounced in Baghdad late Monday where he was expected to talk to a cross-section of Iraqi politicians currently negotiating the formation of the new government for which elections were held in December.

"He will meet politicians and other officials from across the board tomorrow, including Iraqi prime minister and president," a British embassy spokesperson said on Monday, without giving details of Straw's agenda.

Straw's visit comes after video footage was aired showing alleged abuse of four Iraqis by British soldiers in the southern city of Amara which has led to the suspension of ties between the Amara city council and British troops.

The raging controversy is expected to be discussed in Straw's talks with Iraqi leaders.

It was, however, not clear whether Straw would visit the southern city of Basra where Britain maintains 9,000 troops nearly three years after the US- and British-led invasion that toppled former ruler Saddam Hussein.

On Monday British Defence Secretary John Reid defended British troops, insisting that only a minority had been implicated in abuse.

Reid said any ill-treatment, such as the footage apparently showing British soldiers beating unarmed civilians, ought to be condemned but involved fewer than 0.05 per cent of the 100,000 troops who had served in Iraq since 2003.

"Our troops face an unprecedented and unparalleled challenge that requires them to respond in heroic fashion," said Reid in a speech at King's College, central London.

"I ask that we try to imagine what it must be like on the battlefield, so we may be a little slower to condemn and a lot quicker to understand what I believe is the best fighting force in the world."

In the video footage, thought to have been made in 2004 during street riots in southern Iraq, troops in British combat fatigues are seen dragging four young Iraqi civilians off a street and into an army compound, where they are punched, kicked and hit with batons.

Three people have so far been arrested as part of a British military police investigation into the alleged abuse.

A number of British troops have faced courts martial on abuse charges since the start of military action to oust Saddam in March 2003.

They include three who abused Iraqi prisoners at a humanitarian aid camp near the southern city of Basra in May 2003 and another who took pictures of it.

Seven paratroopers were cleared last year of killing an 18-year-old Iraqi after the judge ruled there was insufficient evidence and criticised the main Iraqi witnesses for colluding to exaggerate and lie about the incident.

Seven soldiers are currently facing charges ranging from abuse to manslaughter following the death of an Iraqi man in September 2003.

On the ground, violence has surged after a brief lull.

On Tuesday, two people were killed, one policeman in a Baghdad roadside bombing and a civilian shot dead in the northern city of Baiji, security officials said.

On Monday at least 23 Iraqis died and dozens were wounded in a slew of attacks, including a suicide bombing which burnt to death 12 commuters on a Baghdad minibus.

The violence came against a background of growing bickering among Iraq's ethnic and religious factions on how to form a government of 'national unity' after the December general elections gave the religious Shiite parties a majority in the 275-seat parliament.

On Monday US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned that polarisation along ethnic and sectarian lines was "the fundamental problem" in Iraq.

Khalilzad also warned Iraqi politicians that Washington was opposed to seeing key security portfolios in the new government occupied by people considered sectarian.

"The ministers of interior, defence, national intelligence, the national security adviser have to be people who are non-sectarian, broadly acceptable, non-militia related that will work for all Iraqis," he said.

Iraq's ousted Sunni Arabs have repeatedly accused militias loyal to the Shiite community of abuse and extra-judicial killings, and have alleged that some interior ministry forces are involved in "death squads".

First Published: Feb 21, 2006 19:34 IST