British defense secretary defends soldiers beating Iraqi civilians

Britain's defense secretary defended his troops Monday, days after the emergence of video images that appeared to show British soldiers beating Iraqi civilians. John Reid urged Britons to understand the difficulties modern soldiers face as they fight an enemy that uses mass murder as a tactic and exploits occasional violations of the law by British soldiers.

"It is this uneven battlefield of one-sided scrutiny which has done so much to encourage the perception among our troops that they are increasingly constrained while the enemy is freer than ever to perpetrate the most inhumane practices and crimes," he said, according to the text of a speech delivered at King's College in London. He said terrorists were eager to exploit democratic nations' freedom of speech and other liberties to advance their own cause.

"There would be no free media in a world run by al-Qaida, but they are happy to issue press releases and videos to independent news organizations in the hope they broadcast their messages," the text said. The video images released last week appeared to show British soldiers dragging several young Iraqis into a compound and beating them with fists and batons following a street demonstration in 2004.

British military police have arrested three people in connection with the images, which have soured relations between Iraqi officials and the 8,000 British troops based in the south of the country. Reid said that while it was important to act against those who had broken the law, Britons should remember that their troops' actions were under ever greater scrutiny.

The media and even individuals with cell phones or digital cameras were ready to capture footage of any misbehavior, he said. He urged Britons to remember that the vast majority of their country's soldiers were working hard and following the rules under dangerous conditions.

Civilians should try to imagine what it is like to serve on a battlefield "so we may all be a little slower to condemn and a lot quicker to understand," he said. He argued that fighting an enemy unfettered by the rules of war or morality poses an unprecedented challenge to British forces.

"Where we intrinsically value human life, they do not," he said. "And worst of all, these are not isolated aberrations ... condemned or punished when discovered by their superiors. They are the systematic tools of terror." Reid said al-Qaida revels in mass murder, seeks to cause the greatest pain it can to innocents and uses suicide bombing and other forms of terror freely.

"In our history ... we have faced enemies before which have embraced some of these methods," he said. "Never, though, have we faced an enemy that had the will and the technological means to embrace them all on such a comprehensive scale", reports the AP.


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