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Britain's Hoon in firing line over abuse allegations
Updated: 2004-05-10 09:49

Britain's Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon will come under pressure on Monday to explain exactly what and when the government knew about allegations that British troops abused Iraqi prisoners.

Hoon's statement in parliament is likely to be dominated by suggestions his government was alerted to complaints about the treatment of Iraqi detainees in British custody as early as a year ago.

Britain and the United States, the leading occupying powers in Iraq, have been rocked by the abuse scandal that came to light when graphic images were released in their national media of prisoners being humiliated and mistreated.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Sunday he was sorry for any mistreatment by British soldiers, but stopped short of admitting abuses had taken place.

"We've already made it absolutely clear we apologize deeply to anyone who's been mistreated by any of our soldiers. That is absolutely and totally unacceptable," Blair told France 3 television.

As Britain considers whether to send more soldiers to Iraq to fill a hole left by the pullout of Spanish forces, an opinion poll showed voters supported the withdrawal of all British troops by the end of next month by a majority of two to one.

Fifty-five percent of those polled by NOP for the Independent newspaper called for British troops to be pulled out by June 30, the planned date for the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.

Britain's Mirror newspaper last week printed photographs apparently showing troops urinating on a prisoner and beating him. The authenticity of the pictures has been questioned but The Mirror has since published evidence from a soldier who said he had witnessed savage beatings of Iraqis.

Hoon is likely to face questions as to why a minister told parliament last week he had received no "adverse" reports from any outside body on the treatment of prisoners by British soldiers.

Armed forces minister Adam Ingram's explanation appeared to be undermined after the government said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had raised concerns with it back in February over the treatment of British-held prisoners.

Human rights group Amnesty International added to the controversy on Sunday, saying it had warned the government last May that Iraqis had been tortured and killed in British custody.

Hoon is unlikely to agree to demands that the full ICRC report should be released after his ministry said it was confidential and that it had acted on the recommendations.

The Ministry of Defense said on Sunday three British soldiers had interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad from January to April this year, but they "were not aware of any allegations or incidents of abuse."

The ministry also confirmed military police had completed an inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse of Iraqi detainees and made recommendations to the Army Prosecuting Authority, which will decide whether to bring charges.

In a separate case, families of Iraqis are seeking compensation at London's High Court, alleging their relatives were unlawfully killed by British officers.

The row over the abuse allegations has further deflated Blair's efforts to move the political agenda in Britain away from Iraq.

His government has already been rocked by the suicide of Iraq weapons expert David Kelly during a row over the case for going to war. Hoon came under intense pressure during the subsequent inquiry but survived media calls for his resignation.

Blair's popularity has plummeted since the Iraq war, prompting calls for his resignation from within his own party.

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