A PUBLIC inquiry into allegations that British soldiers murdered and tortured civilians during the Iraq War, finally scheduled to start this year, is on an “unprecedented” scale, its secretary said yesterday.
The Al-Sweady Inquiry is examining claims that UK soldiers murdered 20 or more Iraqis and tortured others after the “Battle of Danny Boy” in Maysan Province, southern Iraq, in May 2004.
The Ministry of Defence vigorously denies the allegations and says those who died were killed on the battlefield.
The inquiry was hoped to start last year, but was delayed due to difficulties in assembling the huge amount of evidence.
The inquiry appointed a team of retired British detectives to investigate what happened from scratch after an earlier Royal Military Police inquiry was judged to be inadequate.
Its oral hearings are due to begin in March and reflect months of information gathering, with statements from hundreds of witnesses including Iraqis as well as military personnel.
Inquiry secretary Cecilia French said: “The inquiry is unprecedented in several ways: first in that it has been tasked with establishing the facts surrounding an incident and its aftermath over which the facts are hotly disputed and had not been properly investigated and where the allegations are of the utmost seriousness.
“Secondly, because of this, it has required a significant investigative phase, which has taken the inquiry the best part of three years to complete and has involved a massive disclosure exercise and efforts to gather, so far, 337 military witness and 78 Iraqi witness statements, the latter having been undertaken during witness interviews abroad.”
The cost so far already stands at £14,946,963 and with hearings expected to go on for a year, is expected to be far more.
Ms French said that although the work undertaken is already huge, there will be just as much for the hearings themselves.
“The oral hearings, due to start in March 2013, will be equally challenging, not least because approximately three months of Iraqi evidence will be heard by video conference from abroad,” she added.
The Al-Sweady Inquiry is one of several into incidents in the Iraq War that continue to cast a shadow over Britain.
British troops ended combat operations in Iraq in April 2009 after a six-year war that claimed the lives of 179 UK personnel and cost more than £9 billion.
The over-arching Iraq inquiry into how Britain came to join the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, as well as the conduct of the conflict, is yet to report its findings.
It originally said it would need until the summer of 2012 to complete its task, but later advised David Cameron it will start writing to any individuals who may be criticised by the middle of this year.
After that, the report – widely predicted to be scathing about the way former prime minister Tony Blair led the country into war – will be submitted to the Prime Minister, then published in Parliament.
Another public inquiry, into the brutal death of father-of-two Baha Mousa at the hands of British soldiers in Iraq, in 2003, has already released its report.