Al-Sweady inquiry opens in UK into deaths of Iraqis

British soldier in Iraq
Image caption The claims centre on events following a firefight in 2004 in Majar al-Kabir

A public inquiry has opened in London into allegations that up to 20 Iraqis were murdered after a gun battle with British troops in 2004. It is a complex inquiry in which events are hotly disputed.

The inquiry, named after one of the dead men, Hamid al-Sweady, will also examine claims that detainees captured at the same time were mistreated.

A retired judge will hear some of the most serious accusations against UK troops to arise from the Iraq war.

The Al-Sweady inquiry is the second public inquiry into allegations of abuse by British troops in Iraq, following one that examined the death of Baha Mousa in 2003, and has been described as "unprecedented" in its scope.

At issue is what happened following a fierce firefight in May 2004, after British soldiers were ambushed close to the southern town of Majar al-Kabir.

"In most public inquiries, you know what has happened and you are trying to find out why - and how you can avoid it in the future," the inquiry's secretary, Cecilia French, told the BBC.

"But this public inquiry is more like a criminal trial because you have two completely different accounts of what happened and we're trying to find out the truth, which makes this very unusual."

Three years have now passed between the setting up of the inquiry and its opening as staff, including retired detectives, have trawled through as many as 12,000 documents.

It has already cost £15m, and that figure is expected to double, with as many as 200 military witnesses likely to be called, and 45 Iraqis expected to give evidence by video-link from Beirut, including medical staff and ambulance drivers.

Fifteen Iraqi witnesses are due to give evidence in person, among them the nine detainees and family members of the dead.

The inquiry chairman is Sir Thayne Forbes, who was the High Court judge in the Harold Shipman murder trial.

Corpses removed

The events are hotly contested, which is why the inquiry - expected to last for about 12 months - has been costly and complex before it has heard the evidence of a single witness.

What is clear is that on 14 May 2004, soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment fought with Iraqi insurgents at a checkpoint known to British soldiers as Danny Boy and that, after the battle, an order was issued to identify the Iraqi dead.

Unusually, corpses were removed from the scene to a nearby military base, Camp Abu Naji.

The Army says it wanted to check whether one of the dead Iraqis was an insurgent suspected of having been involved in the killing of six members of the Royal Military Police the previous year.

It says nine Iraqi men were taken captive and that all left alive.

Both sides agree that, on 15 May, 20 bodies were returned to the Iraqis, but they disagree on almost everything else.

"Probably the only thing that is certain is that 20 bodies were returned to the civilian population the day after the battle. Where they died is the central issue to be resolved by the inquiry," says John Dickinson, lawyer for the Iraqis.

"Did they die in British custody, and if so how many? The essential complaint is that a number of Iraqis were taken from the battlefield alive and either in transit to the camp or at the camp were summarily executed.

"Our clients are desperate to find out what happened to their family members that day. All nine detainees also make complaints about the way they were treated and interrogated."

'Jigsaw puzzle'

The Army insists that all 20 Iraqis died on the battlefield and that the wounds visible on the corpses when they were returned were the result of fighting at close quarters with bayonets.

The Iraqis claim that some of the bodies were deliberately mutilated.

One official close to the inquiry described the task as "like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without even knowing what picture you're aiming to create".

The inquiry found itself having to start virtually from scratch - setting up a police-style investigation of its own because previous investigations carried out by the Royal Military Police (RMP) had been judged inadequate by the courts.

The RMP's initial inquiry had been blocked for several weeks and the Ministry of Defence's response to the allegations led to suspicions of a cover-up.

The inquiry is named after 19-year old Mr Al-Sweady.

His uncle, Khuder Al-Sweady, fought a long legal battle for it, along with the Iraqis who claim they were mistreated in detention following the fighting.

The Ministry of Defence was initially opposed, but in 2009 had to concede after High Court judges accused it of "lamentable" behaviour over its failure to disclose important information.

It emerged in court that the government had known since 2004 that several detainees arrested after the battle had complained to the Red Cross about how they had been treated.

An internal army document shows that a Red Cross doctor believed that facial injuries to the Iraqis suggested "that when the injuries were received the person had either been held down or was defenceless".

The Ministry of Defence insists that the allegations are unproven and that it has never found any credible evidence to support them.

A spokesman said: "The MoD takes all allegations of abuse extremely seriously, which is precisely why we decided that the Al-Sweady allegations should be independently investigated.

"This public inquiry has our full support and we will co-operate with it fully."

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