LONDON (AP) — Britain opened a judge-led public inquiry Monday into claims that its soldiers murdered and abused civilians in southern Iraq in 2004, some of the most serious allegations made against British forces over the war and occupation of the country.
The Al-Sweady Inquiry is investigating claims that up to 20 Iraqis were tortured and killed in May 2004 at a base in Maysan province after a battle between British troops and insurgents. It is named for one of the dead, 19-year-old Hamid Al-Sweady.
The British military denies abuse and says all the dead were killed in battle after ambushing British troops. Several soldiers were decorated for bravery in the engagement — dubbed the battle of Danny Boy after the checkpoint where it took place — which included the British army's first bayonet charge in two decades.
The government ordered the inquiry after Britain's High Court ruled that an earlier Royal Military Police investigation into the killings had been inadequate. That investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by British troops.
The inquiry was ordered almost three years ago, but the hearings had to await a lengthy police investigation, which ended with no one being charged.
Inquiry lawyer Jonathan Acton Davis is due to make an opening statement Monday. The inquiry is expected to last a year and hear from hundreds of witnesses, including several Iraqis who will travel to London to give evidence.
The inquiry is opening just before the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Some 120,000 British troops served in the invasion and subsequent occupation.
Allegations of abuse dogged the six-year British deployment, which ended in 2009. The most infamous was the case of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, whose death in a detention facility outside the city of Basra led to the first conviction of a British soldier under international war crimes legislation.
Britain has paid more than 15 million pounds ($23 million) to settle more than 200 abuse cases.
Britain is also holding a separate wide-ranging public inquiry into the Iraq war, which is due to report later this year.