| (Top) A part of the front page of British tabloid Daily Mirror and (below) a headline from the Sun that appeared on Friday.
London, March 29: In what must be the British cultural equivalent of being struck on the face in public with a chappal, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been rebuked by the family of a dead British serviceman for suggesting that the young man had been “executed” rather than “killed in action”.
This is not mere semantics. The family of Sapper Luke Allsopp, aged only 24, took great comfort at being told by the army that he had been “killed in action” when his vehicle was ambushed and cut down by Iraqi gunfire in southern Iraq.
They were distressed when Blair addressed the world press jointly with President Bush at Camp David and made great play of the fact that Sapper Luke Allsopp and his colleague, Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingham, were captured and executed by the Iraqis, thereby contravening all norms of civilised behaviour and the Geneva Convention.
British television has not shown footage of the bodies of the two men but this has been broadcast and seen widely on the Arabic TV channel, al Jazeera, which seems to be undoing all the good work being done on behalf of Britain and the US by western networks. It is not as though the BBC is embedded with the British government but it cannot take the risk of being accused of being on Saddem Hussein’s side by the pro-war lobby at home.
At his news conference, Blair said that the footage showed an “atrocity” that was “beyond the comprehension of anyone with an ounce of humanity in their souls”.
Blair’s line was loyally echoed by the Sun, the mass circulation tabloid which has taken an aggressive pro-war line. “Saddam Executes Our Boys,” was his front page headline yesterday. “Comrades in tears as 2 Desert Rats are ambushed, shot and bodies filmed for TV,” the paper said.
It quoted a military source as saying: “Such barbarism reflects the true nature of the Iraqi regime. We’re witnessing the lowest conceivable standards of decency and humanity.”
Some might detect almost a racial undercurrent to that comment — the kind of suggestion that might well encourage a backlash against British Muslims. Unfortunately for Blair and the Sun, the family of Sapper Allsopp have come out and said: “We’re disgusted by Blair. The last few days have been hell for us. Our boys died with honour. We accept the army’s word, not Blair’s.”
Sapper Allsopp’s step-father, Michael Pawsey, 49, has now talked to newspapers and also appeared on TV to say the family had been visited four times by Luke’s sergeant. Pawsey added that he had also talked to Luke’s colonel. “The army cannot understand why Blair made his statement. We believe the army has the true story,” said Pawsey.
It could be that Blair is right —- the men were executed — but that army high command, out of kindness, did not want their families to think such young lives had been lost in vain. It is also possible that Blair, normally an honourable man, is plain wrong or had been misinformed and was in a hurry to make a propaganda point. Or it could be the truth has been obscured by the fog of war. Today's Daily Mirror, ironically a traditional Labour supporting tabloid which is vehemently opposed to the war, said that “Blair has hit new low by exploiting the dead”. It savaged the Prime Minister in an editorial: “The Prime Minister was using the slain hero as propaganda to demonise Saddam Hussein.”
The paper’s front page today is headlined: “A Sorry Apology”. And its shows Luke’s stepfather and sister, alongside the words, “No 10’s pathetic excuse for PM’s ‘executed’ claim”, and “‘We’re disgusted,’ says army hero’s family. “
It has to be said this is not the kind of press freedom that Saddam ever encouraged. It was left yesterday for the defence minister, Adam Ingram, an unknown figure, to offer an apology of sorts for the blunder. The big question is how such propaganda failures will affect the military campaign on the ground. Some military experts are suggesting — and they could well be right — that the bombing of Baghdad will have to be stepped up even if this leads to greater civilian casualties, such as the death of more than 50 people in a market yesterday. Blair needs to deliver a speedier military victory, which will inevitably mean compromising his earlier commitment not to target Iraq's civilian population.
The first of 23 British servicemen killed in the opening days of the Iraq war were flown home today to a solemn ceremony with military honours.
Underscoring the grimness of the ceremonial was the fact that none of the 10 dead who arrived back today were killed by enemy fire.
Defence minister Geoff Hoon represented the government at the ceremony, with Air Chief Marshall Sir John Day and Admiral Sir Jonathan Band representing the armed services, sitting alongside the relatives of the dead. Eight of the 10 — one sailor, five Royal Marines and two gunners — were killed when their US transport helicopter crashed on the first night of the invasion of Iraq as they were being flown into southern Iraq.