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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

An ancient Assyrian lamassu standing proud on a London plinth is a powerful symbol of all the wrongs committed by British troops in Iraq

The artwork unveiled this week on a pedestal is just metres from the ongoing inquiry into the tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom

Michael Rakowitz's The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, pictured against the National Gallery in London, is a replica of an ancient lamassu made of thousands of date syrup cans / EPA
Michael Rakowitz's The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, pictured against the National Gallery in London, is a replica of an ancient lamassu made of thousands of date syrup cans / EPA

On Wednesday a winged bull with the head of a bearded man alighted in the heart of London. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, forged by American-Iraqi artist Michael Rakowitz from 10,500 cans of date syrup manufactured in Iraq, is a modern take on the mythical deity known to the ancient Assyrians as a lamassu and the latest sculpture to be offered a temporary home on the vacant Fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

It is, says the office of London mayor Sadiq Khan, purely a coincidence that an iconic image inspired by the post-invasion looting of Baghdad museum in 2003 and so inextricably linked with the ancient history of Mesopotamia is being shown in the heart of the British capital just a week after the 15th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Regardless, there is an uncomfortable resonance to be found in the timely manifestation in London of the 3,000-year-old deity, once relied upon by the forebears of modern Iraqis to protect them from demonic forces. The lamassu will stand on a pedestal barely 200 metres from where the British government made the fateful decision to join the invasion of Iraq and where, since 2015, a low-key judicial inquiry has been working to unravel the truth behind the deaths of just a handful of the tens of thousands of civilians who perished as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In recent weeks Britain’s right-wing press found space among the endless columns devoted to the nation’s Brexit convulsions to launch an attack on the work of the Iraq Fatalities Investigations (IFI) unit, set up by the Ministry of Defence as the result of a court order in 2014.

It was, said the Daily Telegraph, “disgraceful” that the government was allowing the IFI to “hound” British troops who had served in Iraq. It was being “typically, absurdly British – adhering to principles that others have ignored”.

It is true that British troops have been subjected to, and in most part cleared by, a number of criminal inquiries into their conduct in Iraq. It is also true that many of the claims for compensation submitted by Iraqis, in some cases with the shameful collusion of a now struck-off British human rights lawyer, proved to be false.

It should not, however, be forgotten that three British soldiers were jailed by a military tribunal in 2005 for their treatment of prisoners in Basra in May 2003 and that in 2006, seven members of one British regiment were tried and one jailed for inhumane treatment over the 2003 death in custody of Basra hotel receptionist Baha Mousa.

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And in June last year, it emerged between 2003 and 2017, the Ministry of Defence had paid out more than $30 million to settle 1,145 compensation claims brought by Iraqi civilians relating to the Iraq war.

The attack on the work of the IFI was triggered by news that the Ministry of Defence had instructed Sir George Newman, the retired judge who heads the small team, to open his eighth inquiry. On May 23, 2003, three British soldiers in Basra detained two Iraqis suspected of stealing electric cables. One of the men, 18-year-old Saeed Shabram, drowned in the Shatt Al Arab river.

While admitting no liability for Mr Shabram’s death, in July 2011 the Ministry of Defence paid his family $140,470 in compensation. His cousin Menem Akaili, who had been allegedly forced into the water at the same time but survived, was also compensated. Although no one has ever been charged, the ministry says that “the available evidence leaves unresolved the significant conflict between the accounts of the Iraqi and military witnesses as to whether [Mr Shabram] entered the water voluntarily”.

One of the soldiers involved in Sir George’s inquiry is major Robert Campbell, who over the past 15 years has faced seven different investigations into the incident and who has waived his right to anonymity to condemn the latest as a “sordid process … unspeakably cruel and vindictive”. Major Campbell, who has denied any wrongdoing, said that “at a particular low point” last year, he returned his medals to the Queen.

But despite the protestations of some sections of the British media, the IFI is not in the business of conducting witch-hunts. Instead, its investigations are a form of inquest, carried out in order to comply with Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights “to ensure public accountability and to identify systemic issues that cannot always be achieved by a criminal investigation alone”.

In short, as Defence Minister Earl Howe told the House of Lords on March 5, the IFI investigates only when a decision has been taken not to prosecute and in what would appear to be an entirely reasonable and humane attempt “to provide the families of deceased Iraqi civilians with answers about the circumstances of their deaths”.

Since 2016, Sir George Newman and his team have delivered those answers in the cases of six Iraqi sons or fathers who were shot, drowned or beaten to death by British troops in a variety of disputed circumstances between May 2003 and April 2007. Packed with painstakingly researched evidence and written in often heartbreaking detail, the findings of the reports have largely been ignored by the British media.

The military, at least, has been paying close attention. In 2015, as a result of various investigations, including those of the IFI, the Ministry of Defence established the Systemic Issues Working Group to ensure lessons would be learnt – vital not only for the wellbeing of individuals who might fall into the hands of British forces in the future but also for buttressing the moral authority of the UK government.

In a month in which more than 1,500 civilians have been killed and at least 4,000 more have been wounded in the indiscriminate fighting in Ghouta, as the IFI goes doggedly about its deadly serious business, it is hard to imagine the governments of Russia or Syria submitting to the same sort of self-flagellatory scrutiny.

There can be little doubt that Major Campbell has endured a lengthy ordeal, although not one that compares in any way to that suffered by Saeed Shabram and his family. But if, as his many champions insist, Major Campbell is an honourable man, whatever the outcome of the inquiry he faces he would surely prefer to be serving in the uniform of a country that plays the game of war by the rules and at least attempts to take human rights seriously.

Among the military decorations Major Campbell returned in protest to the Queen may have been his Iraq Medal, issued to all members of the British armed forces who took part in the invasion between March 19 and April 28, 2003. With a curious respect for history, if not Iraq’s exclusive claim to it, the designers appropriated the image of a winged bull with the head of a bearded man to grace the rear of the medal.

The lamassu has had a rough couple of centuries. Two displaced examples have stood in the British Museum since they were excavated at Nimrud 170 years ago this month by the archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard, who shipped them back to the UK along with 22,000 other treasures. Another pair Layard left behind were destroyed in Nineveh by ISIL in 2015. And now in another improbable historical twist, the lamassu, the protective deity that once defended Assyrian society against demonic attack, finds itself both raised on a foreign pedestal and adorning medals to honour the soldiers of another country, confronting their own demons conjured up from the ancient sands of Mesopotamia.