An eminent group of nearly 40 ambassadors, military commanders and senior politicians will this week urge Tony Blair to set up an official inquiry into the civilian death toll in Iraq.
Lord Tim Garden, the former assistant chief of the defence staff, Oliver Miles, the former ambassador to Greece and Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, are among the signatories to a letter accusing the Prime Minister of ignoring the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqis thought to have been killed after the coalition invasion last year.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence announced that 850 UK troops of the Black Watch regiment had returned to their base in southern Iraq yesterday after a month-long deployment at Camp Dogwood, in central Iraq’s "triangle of death". Five soldiers from the battle group died during the deployment.
The letter, which is expected to be delivered to Downing Street on Wednesday, calls on Mr Blair to examine claims in The Lancet in October that up to 100,000 civilians might have died - chiefly from coalition air strikes. The demand will rekindle a long-running controversy over the lack of authoritative figures on civilian casualties. An independent estimate by the website iraqbodycount, using media reports of casualties and scarce official figures, suggested the toll is at least 16,000.
Ministers and the Iraqi authorities admit they have no clear idea of the death toll but claim that hospital figures show it is as low as 4,000 - a figure widely rejected as inaccurate.
The new campaign for an official inquiry being launched this week will centre on claims that the UK and the United States have therefore broken their legal and moral duty under treaties such as the Geneva Conventions to protect Iraqi civilians.
Mr Miles, who co-wrote the damaging letter signed by 52 British former diplomats attacking the Government’s policies over Palestine and Iraq in April, said that it was "a disgrace" that the coalition had done "nothing" to discover how many Iraqis had died: "We have an obligation to protect civilians from the dangers of war, and that obligation seems to have been overlooked."
The initiative, organised by the medical charity Medact and the military think-tank the Oxford Research Group, is also supported by the respected US civil rights group Human Rights Watch. A Downing Street spokesman would not comment yesterday because it had not yet seen the letter.
Terry Davis, the leader of the 46-nation Council of Europe, has called on Britain to repeal controversial laws under which 10 foreign terror suspects have been held without trial for nearly three years.
Mr Davis, a former Labour MP, warned that "it is quite wrong to abuse human rights to combat terrorism".
© New Zealand Herald 05.12.04 by Severin Carrell