Simpson Berates 'Trigger-Happy' Troops


By Owen Gibson

June 5, 2003

BBC news reporter John Simpson has hit out against the "trigger-happy" behaviour of US troops in Iraq and claimed he saved an old Iraqi man from being shot by gung-ho marines. The veteran reporter, who spent time with American forces in Tikrit, praised British troops for their conduct during the war but said in an interview with Soldier magazine that the Americans "lost control".

"They lost all control - screaming, shouting and kicking people," Simpson said, adding that US soldiers' fear of snipers led to a 'shoot first, ask questions later' attitude. "One of the marines shouted 'Snipers!' and put up his gun, pointing it at a man on a rooftop. I could see it was an old boy putting out a blanket to air and I said to him in a quiet voice that I would be the witness at his trial for murder if he pulled the trigger. He stopped," said the BBC reporter.

Simpson said he believed British troops had handled the situation better because of their years of experience in Northern Ireland, where he began his career as a reporter in 1969.

"The benefits from the army's Northern Ireland experience have been considerable. I saw that experience put to really good use in Basra. British soldiers didn't treat the local people like enemies, but like citizens that needed help. It was the same in Bosnia and Kosovo," he said.

"In Iraq you could see the stark difference between the way the Americans behaved and how the British did things. It was Northern Ireland that gave the British that experience and that edge." The veteran foreign correspondent said the situation he experienced in Tikrit would never have arisen with British soldiers.

"They are so much in control. We have a first-class army, which is excellently disciplined. The American military culture does not have the business of careful control of firing weapons. If they took a leaf or two out of the British handbook they would do themselves and everyone else a favour," he said.

Simpson was wounded by US troops during the conflict in a horrific "friendly fire" incident that killed his translator Kamaran Abdurazaq Muhamed and 17 others, as well as causing 45 injuries. Simpson filed a remarkable report by phone just minutes after the bomb landed on the convoy, breaking off at one point to tell a US army medic coming to his aid: "Shut up. I'm broadcasting... Oh yes, I'm fine - am I bleeding?."

The BBC later showed pictures of the tragedy shot by cameraman Fred Scott, who at one point is seen wiping blood from his lens, of Simpson and others running around trying to treat the wounded in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, while vehicles burned in the background. Speaking about the incident in the interview with the Ministry of Defence magazine, Simpson recounted the horrific attack in detail for the first time.

"We were going forward with a convoy of Kurdish and American forces," he recalled. "As we approached a town several Iraqi tanks fired at us and the American commander called up an air strike. Two F-14s came in low and I saw the missile leave the aircraft." It landed a few yards away, the explosion blowing up cars in the convoy, most of which were laden with ammunition.

"There was a lot of panic and unpleasant sights. People burning to death or staggering around with their insides in their hands. Our translator, Kamaran, had some shrapnel through the femoral artery and I don't think he stood a chance," said Simpson. The rest of the BBC team travelling with Simpson when the attack happened sustained minor injuries and the reporter told of his pride in his team. "My whole team behaved superbly, nobody lost it and I was very proud of them. They behaved in the finest traditions of the BBC."

Simpson, who sustained ruptured eardrums and remains deaf in his left ear, said he would like to see justice done for Mr Muhamed's family. "We owe it to them to find out why it happened and to see if it's possible to avoid it in the future. And I'd like to see what disciplinary measures were taken. It is not a crusade but a desire to see what went wrong," said Simpson.

In the interview, Simpson also reminisces on his previous assignments and criticises both the US and British forces for their conduct during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. "It was terrible, horrifying and wicked. It was a war crime that went on for three years and was appalling. I didn't feel that Britain or the Americans came out of it very well, and I don't think the BBC covered itself in glory," he said.

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