Exclusive: British army sent unqualified investigators to Iraq where troops ‘got away with murder’, veterans say

The British army’s choice of unqualified junior officers to lead its police investigations unit during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq contributed to soldiers escaping accountability for abuses, former members of the unit have told Declassified UK.

23 June 2020

A British soldier aims a pistol in Basra, Iraq. (Photo: Harland Quarrington / MOD)

Senior army commanders pressured a junior officer to stop an internal investigation into a British war crime in Iraq, writing it off as an “unfortunate incident in war”, a former member of the Royal Military Police’s Special Investigations Branch (SIB) has told Declassified UK.

Another former senior SIB officer has said that British paratroopers should have been convicted of killing another Iraqi but they escaped punishment when a trial collapsed after failings in an SIB investigation.

Declassified UK has spoken to four former soldiers in the SIB, which deployed to the Iraq conflict in 2003 alongside conventional troops, ready to investigate serious incidents involving UK forces, including potential British war crimes. None wanted to be named.

Decisions were made not to send sufficiently qualified senior investigating officers to command the SIB during the invasion and early tours, the former SIB members said. This made it easier for the army’s senior command to influence the investigations into abuses and created a backlog of unresolved cases, they say.

“I did not feel qualified to deal with an investigation of this scale and did not have sufficient resources,” one of the unit’s leaders later said. The SIB should have sent their “A-team” to Iraq, but instead dispatched officers who were “completely unqualified” to lead serious investigations in a theatre of war, a former senior SIB officer told Declassified UK.

“They sent the wrong people… And to this day I don’t know why,” the source said. “The more I think about it, the more mad it becomes.”

The former senior SIB officer said that one would “absolutely 100%” expect to see more UK military prosecutions coming out of Iraq. He added, “You look at the amount of people who were prosecuted – virtually none. You know, how many people got away with murder?”

There have been only four publicly disclosed cases of UK soldiers facing court martial over abuses in Iraq, with five soldiers convicted, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has confirmed.

The BBC recently reported that British soldiers who have been accused of committing war crimes in Iraq are unlikely to face criminal prosecution. Of the thousands of allegations made against British forces in Iraq, the director of the Service Prosecuting Authority, which conducts prosecutions in criminal cases involving the military, says that just one remaining case is being examined.

A document dated 2005, written by the then head of the Royal Military Police (RMP), Brigadier Colin Findlay, and given to Declassified UK, acknowledges failures of investigation by the SIB in Iraq and that a more senior and highly qualified officer should have led the unit to war until the conflict “normalised.”

By the time the first experienced SIB commander was sent on the third tour to Iraq, around seven months after the invasion, it was too late to recover and the MOD never “caught up” with investigations in the country, a former senior SIB officer said.

Another former senior SIB officer, who was aware of discussions at “all levels” of the SIB in the buildup to the war, believes the order to send unqualified junior officers to Iraq came from “on high,” likely from the office of the Provost Marshal (Army), the head of the Royal Military Police, who at the time was Brigadier Maurice Nugent.

The killing of Zahir Zaher 

An Iraqi man, Zahir Zaher, was killed by British soldiers on 24 March 2003, at a roadblock on the outskirts of Zubayr near Basra in southern Iraq. Zaher had approached a UK checkpoint guarded by British tanks and started throwing stones while advancing. 

Sergeant Steven Roberts of the 2nd royal tank regiment warned Zaher to stop, before shooting at him with a pistol. The Iraqi survived and continued to throw stones. Soldiers from two of the tanks fired and hit the Iraqi, but also killed Roberts. Zaher was still alive and another soldier killed him with shots from close range.

At a 2006 inquest into the death of Sgt Roberts, the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith told the House of Lords the case would be closed, saying, “There is insufficient evidence to institute criminal proceedings in this case” and that “there is no suggestion that the chain of command acted unlawfully.”

Sergeant Steven Roberts was the first British soldier to die during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (Photo: MOD handout)

A former SIB member told Declassified UK the decision was an “easy out”. “This bloke has basically been executed. He’s been shot with something like four different weapons and he’s been finished off execution style on the ground. This is just completely wrong.” 

The officer commanding the SIB’s investigations unit in Iraq, Captain Jules Parke-Robinson, went to UK army headquarters of 1 Division after the incident, seeking to discuss the case. However, she returned to the SIB unit with orders from senior officers that the investigation should be written off, the former SIB member said.

“It’s an unfortunate incident in war and that’s how you’re going to deal with it,” Parke-Robinson was told at the headquarters. 

“Everybody agreed basically that this bloke [Zaher] had been murdered,” the SIB source said, adding that Parke-Robinson had interviewed soldiers involved in the incident who had confirmed the events. 

The investigation was initially closed, but following the end of the tour the SIB agreed it should be reopened. The army allowed the SIB to reopen the case “with great reluctance”, but Lord Goldsmith took it out of the military’s hands and passed it to the Metropolitan Police

Inquiries by the RMP were halted by Lord Goldsmith in October 2004 because of what he called “a concerted attempt by the chain of command to influence and prevent an investigation”. Goldsmith told the House of Lords that it would have been better to have concluded a full investigation earlier. 

The SIB member told Declassified UK there were concerns about Parke-Robinson’s inexperience and lack of independence from the army’s senior command. She regularly returned to the SIB unit after visits to UK military headquarters in Iraq, with orders that cases should be closed or finished quickly. 

It appeared UK military headquarters in Iraq were trying to run SIB investigations despite it being outside their job remit or area of expertise, a former SIB member said.

“They should be letting the investigators, who are trained, to actually let the evidence and the facts take them to the conclusion. Not tell the investigators: ‘This is what our conclusion is. You should investigate it accordingly’”. 

Although it was easier for army headquarters to “influence” a junior officer in charge of the SIB, even a more experienced officer would have faced an “enormous battle” to conduct thorough investigations independently from the UK’s senior command in Iraq, the former SIB member said.

‘She was sent out there to fail’

The RMP maintains law in the army and the SIB is an investigations unit within it. Senior SIB officers traditionally spent decades in the military police, made arrests, worked on criminal cases and were deployed to conflicts. The most senior officers earned the senior investigating officer (SIO) qualification, demonstrating they could run teams in complex investigations.

The SIB’s unit during the first tour of Iraq in 2003 – codenamed Operation Telic 1 – was commanded by the least qualified officer the SIB could have sent from the selection pool available at the time, a former senior SIB officer said.

Captain Parke-Robinson, who had graduated from Sandhurst in 1999, had undertaken a six month trial attachment with the SIB and passed the entry course in 2002. At the time of deploying to Iraq, she was learning to be an officer in the unit on her first two year assignment at British army bases in Germany, where new captains are “pretty much babysat”. 

Parke-Robinson was not trained as a senior investigating officer before the 2003 deployment and was not known to have led a serious investigation in a peacetime environment at the time she was selected, the former senior SIB officer said. 

The order to send Parke-Robinson is said to have broken Provost Operational Procedure 203, which stated that an SIB section deployed to a conflict such as Iraq should have been commanded by a Major, another former SIB member told Declassified UK.

The army assigned her to lead the SIB unit in Iraq, its biggest deployment since World War Two, ahead of at least two higher ranking Majors in the SIB who were trained as senior investigating officers and who had over thirty years’ experience in the unit investigating serious crimes.

Parke-Robinson was also sent ahead of at least two more senior captains, one of whom – John McAllister – had over 25 years’ SIB experience and was reportedly “desperate” to go to Iraq, having volunteered to be the first commanding officer there. 

“She was sent out there to fail,” a former senior SIB officer said. “I’m not talking a little gap [in experience], I’m talking a fucking gulf in proportion. No one could understand why they sent her.”

“Someone sat in an office and chose not to send [senior investigators and SIOs]… And someone above them hasn’t said, ‘What are you doing?’”, the former senior SIB officer said. He added that this happened three times. “It beggars belief.”

“Why did the military police send such inexperienced and unqualified people to a theatre of war? It’s not rocket science. You’re going to be [dealing with]… torture, homicide and war crimes.”

Another former SIB member said that sending junior officers to lead the SIB in Iraq was like taking a civilian police constable straight out of training and making them head of a murder investigations squad.

The killing of Nadhem Abdullah 

In November 2005 a UK judge stopped a trial of seven British soldiers from 3 Para of the Parachute Regiment who were accused of murdering an Iraqi civilian during Parke-Robinson’s time as head of the SIB unit. 

The British soldiers were accused of dragging 18-year-old Nadhem Abdullah and another Iraqi out of their car in the town of Al-Ferkah, southern Iraq, in May 2003, forcing them to lie down and battering them with rifle butts, helmets, fists and feet. 

Abdullah was taken to hospital with internal bleeding to the back of the head and died on the way. The other man survived. The prosecution said blood found on one of the rifle butts matched the DNA of Abdullah’s family. The soldiers pleaded not guilty in court.

After a court martial in London lasting nine weeks in late 2005, the judge stopped the case on grounds of insufficient evidence and recorded not guilty verdicts for the soldiers. The judge said the investigation “made serious omissions” including not obtaining hospital admission records, not getting DNA from Abdullah’s siblings to test against the blood on the rifle butt, not obtaining the alleged victim’s clothing until six months after the incident and not analysing the blood on it. 

“There is no doubt the investigation in this case has been inadequate,” the judge concluded.

A former senior SIB officer familiar with the trial told Declassified UK that the paratroopers had, in fact, killed Nadhem Abdullah and should have been convicted but were let off because the SIB investigators took six months to consider basic actions which should have been done on “day one”, such as recovering Abdullah’s clothing. 

A day after the trial, Brigadier Findlay, the head of the RMP with responsibility over the SIB – known as the Provost Marshal (Army) – wrote a document which has been seen by Declassified UK.

Findlay, who became head of the RMP in 2004, wrote, “There are clearly lessons that need to be learned from this trial. Initial assessment is that investigational failures did occur within the RMP (SIB), but it is also clear that the lessons go far beyond the issues of purely the investigation.”

Findlay listed the first lesson: “The RMP (SIB) assets… were commanded by a Captain [on Telic 1]. Lesson: An SIB Major (Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) trained) will in future deploy to all new theatres of operation at medium or large scale – only once the theatre has normalised will a Capt (SIO) take command.”

Document written by Brigadier Colin Findlay, the head of the RMP with responsibility over the SIB.

A former senior SIB officer said that the Brigadier’s “lessons” were already known to the SIB, demonstrated by tours in Kosovo and Bosnia where experienced SIO-trained SIB Majors led the unit to war despite those conflicts being more “benign” than Iraq.

“Jesus Christ, does it really take someone that intelligent to work that out,” the former officer said, commenting on the document. “We’re going to a theatre of war, investigating death. Maybe we should have sent someone who was qualified.”

Another former officer said there was a shift in the SIB after a new Brigadier, Maurice Nugent, was appointed head of the RMP in 1999. 

His office is believed to have ordered the SIB to accept more young Sandhurst graduates into the unit around this time, giving them officer leadership roles early, often at the expense of experienced investigators who had been promoted through the unit and would traditionally have reached these command positions. 

But the new graduates lacked policing experience and were used to taking orders from the military structure outside of the RMP, which could undermine their independent police role. They were less willing to challenge senior army officers who might obstruct their investigations because their next posting could be in the wider army, another former SIB member said.

‘I did not feel qualified to deal with an investigation of this scale’

The officers commanding the SIB unit on two further tours in Iraq – Telic 2 and 4 – were also both considered inexperienced and unqualified by former SIB members and both had problems with investigations on their tours. 

Captains Gayle Nugent (daughter of Brigadier Nugent) and Lucy Bowen were also 1999 Sandhurst graduates and direct entry officers streamed into the RMP. Like Parke-Robinson, both Nugent and Bowen had comparatively minor policing experience and are believed not to have been SIO-trained.

Captain Bowen was the SIB’s officer commanding on Telic 4 during an incident in May 2004, known as the Battle of Danny Boy, in which British soldiers fought a gun battle against Iraqi insurgents in the Mahdi army near the southern city of Amarah. 

The soldiers were accused of bringing Iraqi prisoners and dead bodies back to their camp, torturing and killing 20 of the captives. An investigation conducted by the SIB cleared British forces of any wrongdoing and a subsequent official inquiry into the incident in 2014 – known as Al-Sweady – concluded that the soldiers did not murder Iraqis but did find they mistreated detainees, including depriving them of food and sleep and blindfolding them.

Iraqi detainees shown with their hands tied behind their backs on 14 May 2004. (Photo: report of the Al Sweady Inquiry)

An earlier report by the Greater Manchester police into the SIB found that it failed to collect forensic evidence and did not ask Iraqi witnesses relevant questions as they investigated the battle and its aftermath.

A former SIB member who was on Telic 4 with Bowen, said SIB investigators working under Bowen wanted to take a helicopter to the scene of the incident and document what happened there, but were stopped by the British military in control of the area and Bowen complied. 

Former SIB members said she had insufficient experience and qualifications to deal with obstructive senior army officers.

In a 2008 witness statement about the incident Bowen said: “I decided that… I needed to request a Senior Investigating Officer to come out with a separate team to deal with the enquiry. I did not feel qualified to deal with an investigation of this scale and did not have sufficient resources.”

A senior SIB officer, Major Downie, arrived in Iraq over two and a half months after the incident to help Bowen with the investigation, but he stayed only three days.

Internal RMP emails show that in 2008 Colonel Dudley Giles, a senior SIB officer, asked Bowen and her second in command on Telic 4, Paul Terry, to adjust or remove parts of their witness statements about the Battle of Danny Boy incident where they refer to SIOs. Terry replied that doing so would look a “tad fishy” and refused to “lie on oath” while Bowen also resisted, the emails show.

Bowen’s statement said she had never deployed on operations before Telic 4, adding that the SIB section in Iraq worked differently to the way it ran in a peacetime environment and that she did not have enough personnel under her command.

“She just didn’t have a clue where she was”, a former SIB member who was on Telic 4 said. “I was looking for guidance and she just wasn’t there.”

Former SIB members told Declassified UK the SIB unit in Iraq faced other problems during early tours including inadequate numbers of personnel, lack of support from military command in the UK, low mobility and poor access to forensic equipment. Most, however, considered these less damaging factors than the unqualified officers leading the investigations.

The officer commanding Telic 3, John McAllister, was the first experienced SIB commander in Iraq, a former senior SIB officer said. Although not officially SIO-qualified at the time, McAllister had the experience of an SIO level investigator and his tour went well despite the need to “tidy mess” from previous months. But the former officer said it was by then already too late to catch up.

A former SIB member who recently left the unit said problems persist in the RMP with a structure which favours inexperienced Sandhurst officers over experienced investigators, not enough focus on policing, and lack of independence from the MOD.

The source told Declassified UK the RMP isn’t “fit for purpose.”

Lucy Bowen is now Lieutenant Colonel Lucy Moore and became commanding officer of the RMP’s SIB in November 2018.

Jules Parke-Robinson (left) handing over her command to Lucy Bowen in 2018. (Credit: MOD)

‘Unbearable workload’

Bowen handed more than 50 unfinished abuse investigations to the next SIB commander, including the Danny Boy incident, a witness statement for the inquiry into the incident shows. 

Incoming SIB members were “in a state of astonishment” at the unfinished cases, it said, with many of the case files containing little information. A different SIB member said that at one time the SIB had over 100 cases active on Telic 4. Paul Terry said there was an “unbearable workload”.

After the first tour ended around June 2003, an SIB member worked on unfinished Telic 1 investigations from his office in Germany. Two other SIB members were assigned to work on unfinished cases from Telic 2, which came back to England in boxes from Iraq after that tour ended in late 2003. 

By early 2006 the two other SIB members were still working on the Telic 2 files. A former senior SIB officer said they shared an office at the unit’s headquarters in Bulford, Wiltshire, which was stacked with tens of cases. 

SIB officers “would literally go in [to their office] and flip a coin and, ‘what shall we look at today?’” a former officer said. 

The source said it was a “joke” that two people in England could be expected to deal with piles of historical allegations of murder, killings and sudden deaths, adding it was “beyond words” that incidents so serious had been allowed to “fester”.

“What kind of service is that to people who’ve been killed?” the former senior SIB officer said. He added that the “failure” meant a “weight of accusation” also hung over those accused for years through the Iraq Historic Allegations Inquiry (IHAT). This was set up by the British government in March 2010 to investigate allegations of abuse by UK troops in Iraq between 2003 and July 2009. 

Cases should have been resolved by “professionals” at the time in 2003 and 2004, the former senior officer said. “The failure was at multi-level,” and the damage “immeasurable”.

The officer added that the poor performance led to human rights lawyer Phil Shiner getting early victories in court against the MOD over claims UK soldiers abused civilians in Iraq, because flaws in the SIB’s investigations made the government more vulnerable to the claims.

A 2009 communication written by government legal employees seen by Declassified UK reveals concern about the effectiveness and independence of SIB investigations in Iraq. It discusses the impact this could have in cases against Public Interest Lawyers and Phil Shiner.

The employees, Linda Dann with MOD central legal services and Cathy Kennedy with the Treasury Solicitor’s department, said the MOD’s agreement to an independent investigation into the Battle of Danny Boy incident “is tantamount to an acceptance of lack of effectiveness” in the case. “It simply won’t be credible to argue that that particular investigation was not typical.”

Martyn Day, a lawyer and senior partner at Leigh Day, a human rights law firm which represented the family of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi killed by British soldiers while in custody, told Declassified UK, “It was clear that the RMP/SIB were not up to the job.”

Day called the UK government’s handling of IHAT and its equivalent for the war in Afghanistan, known as AHAT, a “real dog’s breakfast.” But Day believes the primary reason the government was vulnerable to claims was “the crass decision” to allow military interrogators to use torture techniques on prisoners in Iraq. “This ensured that many hundreds of Iraqis had good claims against the MOD,” Day said.

A former senior SIB officer told Declassified UK they believe the “whole history” of IHAT and Public Interest Lawyers would have been different if the SIB had sent an experienced investigator to Iraq on the first tour.

“You’d have had someone out there on day one dealing with every case as an experienced homicide crime manager SIO throwing the right resources at it, documenting things correctly… Instead you had someone who had no clue,” the former officer said.  

‘No intention of prosecuting any soldier’

But flaws in the RMP went beyond the use of inexperienced commanders and ineffective investigations. The document written by government legal employees noted that before 1 November 2009, commanding officers were able to investigate but then dismiss incidents which occurred under their own command without the need for a report to come from the RMP and service police.

 “There are instances where UK police forces have referred matters to the chain of command for disposal in the military justice system… Clearly the option which the commanding officer has to dismiss a murder charge is a weakness in the system,” the document said.

In November 2019 the Sunday Times Insight team and BBC’s Panorama revealed that detectives from IHAT concluded that the RMP wrongly cleared the army of wrongdoing over civilian deaths in Iraq, despite “compelling evidence”. 

An IHAT detective also told Panorama that during the IHAT inquiry, “The Ministry of Defence had no intention of prosecuting any soldier of whatever rank he was unless it was absolutely necessary and they couldn’t wriggle their way out of it.” 

Former investigators from IHAT and AHAT said allegations that Phil Shiner paid people to find clients in Iraq were used as an excuse to close down the inquiries. No British soldier was ever prosecuted under IHAT or AHAT.

An MOD spokesperson told Declassified, “It is categorically untrue that officers from the Special Investigations Branch (SIB) were sent to Iraq to ‘fail’. Operation Telic was one of the most demanding investigative challenges any UK police force has faced and SIB officers were required to operate in complex and dangerous circumstances.”

It added, “Op Telic was the biggest deployment of SIB since its formation in 1940. Early detachments found themselves undertaking a higher number of investigations than anticipated. IHAT was able to be shut down in 2017, following a number of legal developments, including the discrediting of Public Interest Lawyers that led to Phil Shiner being struck off.”

Declassified UK approached Jules Parke-Robinson, Lucy Moore, Dudley Giles, Brigadier Nugent and Gayle Nugent who did not reply or declined to comment.