LONDON (AP) – An inquiry will be held into allegations that Iraqi civilians were tortured and killed by British troops following a fierce gunbattle in Iraq in 2004, the defense ministry said Monday.
Government lawyer Clive Lewis told London’s High Court that Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth had ordered a study to examine events which followed clashes close to the southern Iraqi town of Majar al-Kabir.
Six Iraqi civilians are suing the British military and have demanded a full public inquiry into claims that about 20 detainees were killed and others mistreated. Five of the Iraqi men say they were threatened with violence, thrown against walls, stuck by guards and denied water by British troops. Britain’s defense ministry could not immediately say whether the inquiry would be held in public, or provide details about who would be questioned.
The ministry claims soldiers fought Iraqi insurgents after a convoy was ambushed along the main road between Baghdad and the southern city of Basra on May 14, 2004. Several soldiers have been decorated for bravery in the battle, which included the British army’s first bayonet charge in two decades.
The ministry says soldiers picked up 20 bodies from the battlefield, along with nine survivors, and handed the corpses over to Iraqi authorities the next day. It strongly denies accusations of mistreatment or murder, and says the dead were insurgents.
Lawyers for the Iraqi civilians claim that they were laborers innocently caught up in the violence.
Lewis told the court that some evidence had been withheld by the government because to disclose the information publicly could be damaging to the national security. He said that judges were unlikely to be able to properly form an opinion on the case, prompting the decision to hold an inquiry.
“In those circumstances, the secretary of state is proposing that there be an investigation of the allegations of murder of Iraqi detainees by British forces … and specific allegations by five Iraq nationals of ill-treatment,” Lewis said.
Claims of abuse were first made shortly after the battle in 2004. A Royal Military Police investigation found no wrongdoing by British forces. Military police began a new investigation into the five men’s claims in December, but it has not reached a public finding yet. The actions of British forces in Iraq have previously come under scrutiny.
Three British soldiers were jailed by a military court and dismissed from the military after they were convicted of abusing Iraqi civilians at a camp near Basra in 2003.
A public inquiry is due to begin next week into the death of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist who died in September 2003 in Basra, having suffered 93 different injuries, including a broken nose and fractured ribs. An autopsy said he died of asphyxia, caused by a stress position soldiers forced him to maintain.
Corp. Donald Payne, who became Britain’s first convicted war criminal, was dismissed by the army and sentenced to a year in prison in 2007 over the killing. Six other soldiers who were cleared due to a lack of evidence.
William Gage, a retired Court of Appeal judge, is leading the public inquiry into Mousa’s death.