British general faces war charge,00.html

Michael Smith

A BRITISH general is facing possible criminal charges over one of the most controversial incidents of the Iraq war, The Sunday Times has learnt.

The allegations levelled against Major-General Peter Wall relate to alleged attempts by senior officers to prevent an investigation into the deaths of a British tank commander and an unarmed Iraqi civilian.

The death of Sergeant Steven Roberts at al-Zubair in the early hours of March 24, 2003, led to widespread public outrage after the Ministry of Defence confirmed he had no body armour. In a taped message, recorded the evening before he died and released by his widow Samantha, Roberts described the lack of equipment as a “joke”.

It only emerged later that a civilian had died in the same incident.

Wall, who is deputy chief of joint operations, is by far the most senior officer to have been implicated in a case involving alleged wrongdoing by British troops.

He was commander of 1 (UK) Armoured Division at the time of the alleged offence.

His actions were investigated after Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general, told Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary, that the evidence suggested “a concerted attempt by the chain of command to influence and prevent an investigation”.

Goldsmith then removed the case from the army’s control and ordered that any charges be heard by a civilian court.

As a result of a Metropolitan police investigation, two soldiers from 2nd Royal Tank Regiment face possible murder charges over the death of Zahir Zabti Zaher, the unarmed Iraqi civilian.

Another soldier from the same regiment faces a possible manslaughter charge over the death of Roberts. Wall faces possible charges relating to the alleged attempt to prevent the investigation.

The allegations against Wall, one of the army’s most senior commanders, and other serious claims made by an army whistleblower, will raise doubts over its ability to police its soldiers’ conduct in Iraq.

If Wall is charged, the army’s role as a peacekeeping force may be undermined, with soldiers under fire fearing legal scrutiny for every action they take.

The Ministry of Defence issued a statement on Wall’s behalf. In it the general said: “It is inappropriate for me to comment on the case as it is still under investigation, but I am confident I acted in accordance with the interests of justice and appropriate care for the soldiers under my command.”

The whistleblower, who first informed The Sunday Times of Wall’s alleged involvement, said the army Special Investigation Branch (SIB) team that was sent to the scene of the killings realised immediately there were grounds for a criminal investigation.

However, they were told by a senior SIB officer not to pursue the soldiers as possible suspects and to treat them simply as witnesses, a move that seriously hampered subsequent investigations into the killings.

“There had been a huge amount of rounds fired, lots of empty cases. No rounds [were] being reported as fired at them. There was no body [found] but they talked to enough locals to say that an Iraqi had been shot and killed and it happened at the same time that Sergeant Roberts died.
“The Iraqis were claiming that there had been a protest by locals who had come to remonstrate with the patrol. Things got to a point where this local threw a stone at a tank and threw another one, and then at some point he gets shot.”

There were Iraqi eyewitness claims that Roberts had ordered his men to shoot the man, that there was no return fire and that he died in the resultant shooting as an indirect effect of his order to fire on the unarmed Iraqi.

The lead SIB investigator, a warrant officer, wanted to interview the soldiers under caution, but he was ordered by the senior SIB officer to take witness statements and compile a report later, the source alleges.

The senior officers who decided the investigation should not go ahead “very nearly succeeded in making any subsequent investigation impossible due to the loss of primary evidence,” the source said.

When the report was received in Germany, in summer 2003, the head of the SIB went to see Wall on a number of occasions and told him there had to be a proper investigation. Wall allegedly wrote to the army’s UK headquarters questioning the need for the case to be investigated and the right of his own SIB to tell him an investigation must take place, the source said.

“He sought legal advice on his powers to halt the investigation into the death of Sergeant Roberts, pointing out that the SIB were ‘ultimately under the chain of command’ and not on any independent ‘statutory footing’.”

The army’s senior legal adviser, known as Brigadier Advisory, replied that the decision not to launch a criminal investigation at the time of the killings was flawed.

Goldsmith told Hoon that even after the “clear advice” from the senior legal adviser, there was further correspondence which “shows the chain of command intervening to prevent investigations by the Special Investigation Branch”.

The SIB carried out a fresh investigation, but when the results were handed to the Army Prosecuting Authority in April 2004 officials there felt compelled to consult Goldsmith, who decided the civilian justice system must deal with the case.

He told Hoon that “as well as ensuring that justice is done there is also a need to ensure that justice is seen to be done, hence the justification for moving these matters to the civilian court”.

It was subsequently re-investigated by the Met and is now back with the Crown Prosecution Service, which is considering possible charges.

The soldier’s widow, Samantha Roberts, said she had no knowledge of any attempt by senior officers to prevent the investigation going ahead and was not in a position to speculate on the circumstances of her husband’s death.

“I await the outcome of the Metropolitan Police inquiry,” she said. “While I am anxious to see the concluded inquiry I do appreciate the painstaking nature of evidence-gathering in Iraq and the time this takes.”