Ex-officer denies 'slow-roll' claim

Mid Devon Star: The Al-Sweady Inquiry is examining allegations of mistreatment of Iraqis. The Al-Sweady Inquiry is examining allegations of mistreatment of Iraqis.

A former army officer has denied "slow-rolling" an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing by British troops after a vicious battle in Iraq a decade ago.

Matthew Maer told the Al-Sweady public inquiry that he or his troops had not been deliberately uncooperative with the Royal Military Police as they tried to investigate allegations relating to the treatment of the Iraqis after the Battle of Danny Boy in May 2004.

The former brigadier, who was commanding officer of First Battalion the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (1PWRR) at the time, also denied deliberately ordering the destruction of photographs of Iraqi dead bodies, and detainees.

The Al-Sweady Inquiry is examining allegations that British troops mistreated and killed Iraqi detainees at Camp Abu Naji (CAN) near Majar-al-Kabir after the battle in May 2004.

But the MoD has vigorously denied the claims, saying any deaths occurred on the battlefield.

The inquiry has heard that the decision to take bodies of Iraqis back to CAN after the firefight was unusual, but was taken in an effort to identify the dead and find out if one of them was connected to the deaths of six Red Caps the previous year.

It has so far remained unclear where the order to remove the bodies came from, with many soldiers telling the inquiry they believed it had come from those higher up the chain of command, in Basra.

But Brigadier Andrew Kennett, brigade commander at the time, has said he did not remember giving the order, although it was possible he could have.

Mr Maer today said he was travelling back from Basra to CAN - where he was based - at the time of the battle, and only heard about the order when he arrived at CAN.

He said he thought the order had come from brigade headquarters in Basra, but had focused on dealing with its potential consequences rather than questioning it.

The former officer, who left the army in 2012, told the inquiry that the decision had "immediate consequences" that were to continue - with the very existence of the inquiry 10 years later being a testament to its far-reaching fallout.

Mr Maer denied suggestions that his battlegroup had been uncooperative with Royal Military Police investigations into the incident.

He said there were difficulties in producing soldiers for interviews, but no deliberate effort relating to Danny Boy, adding: "I absolutely do not believe that we took any official stance about non-cooperation on Danny Boy particularly".

He told the inquiry: "I did not stop the Danny Boy investigation into shooting because I couldn't, and I don't recall slow-rolling the Danny Boy investigation deliberately in any way."

He said he could not recall refusing to make soldiers available for interview and said he had asked the RMP's Special Investigations Branch to look at allegations relating to the battle - a claim that the inquiry heard has been denied by one RMP officer.

Asked if he had deliberately "drip-fed" information to the RMP, Mr Maer said: "There was no policy whatsoever - direction, instruction or whatever - not to make witnesses available to the RMP on this or indeed any other investigation."

He also said he did not remember giving an order to a fellow officer, Captain James Rands, to make sure any photographs of inappropriate photograph of enemy dead, wounded or prisoners were destroyed.

Asked by counsel to the inquiry Jonathan Acton Davis QC: "How would you react to the suggestion that you knew that the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) had asked for an investigation and therefore you told Captain Rands to get his hands on all the photographs and to destroy them?", he replied: "I absolutely 100% categorically deny that."

Mr Maer, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the battle, said he only learned of the decision to take dead Iraqis back to CAN when he returned to the base.

He admitted he was concerned by the decision when he was told by a fellow officer, but said he did not question the order and concentrated on the practical aspects of dealing with the "hand he had been dealt".

He told the inquiry: "I was concerned because it was a sensitive issue in a number of ways, not least of which was religion which was the need to have the dead buried before sunset the following day. So there were cultural and religious sensitivities as well."

He said there were also concerns about the reaction of the local community, including relatives of those who had killed, adding: "It was very much about getting to the community at Majar al-Kabir and letting them know what has happened."

Of his own reaction to the order to remove bodies, he said: "You find yourself in these circumstances; it's a pretty pragmatic and practical situation.

"And there are any number of things going on, things that might be about to happen to us, factors of concern. It had happened and you had to play the hand you are dealt.

"I think if you have a reaction it was probably, ' oh, okay'. I was more concerned about 'what do I now do with this card I have been dealt', rather than question I have been dealt it."

Mr Maer was asked by Mr Acton Davis about quotes in the book Dusty Warriors, by Richard Holmes, in which he said: "It was a decision that was to have immediate consequences and was to haunt us metaphorically and literally both as individuals and an organisation for the rest of our time and beyond."

He told the inquiry those immediate effects included an altercation when the bodies were returned to the local community and taken to a nearby hospital, which led to a local policeman being shot.

He said: "Immediately within 24 hours there was fallout", and adding that it had continued, saying: "obviously we are sitting here 10 years later".

"For individuals, I know certainly some of the soldiers suffered as a result of that action," he said. "And the rest of us...well, the inquiry I suppose is testament to that."

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