ARMY ON TRIAL: British convoy bombed as militants vent anger over `election success'

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the charges against seven paratroopers for the alleged murder of an Iraqi civilian could not have come at a more sensitive time for British forces in the country.

With Islamist militants calling for a renewed campaign of violence after the national elections, and the expectation of disturbances when the results are announced, soldiers are already on a high state of alert.

A British Army convoy was hit yesterday by a blast in central Basra, injuring a civilian and damaging a Land Rover. Lieutenant-Colonel Phil Lewis, of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, said militants were venting their frustration over the successful elections. The murder charges also come after the widespread viewing in Iraq on the internet of photographs of abuse of prisoners shown at the court martial in Osnabruck and other reports of alleged malpractice.

The news about the paratroopers and their alleged part in the death of Nadhem Abdullah in May 2003 had not widely permeated Basra by yesterday evening. By today, however, it is expected to be publicised in time for the Friday prayers regularly used by militant Muslim clerics to preach against the US and British occupation.

Senior officers stress that the numbers of cases of alleged abuse are small considering the large presence of forces in Iraq over the past 15 months. But they also acknowledge that the continuous "drip" effect of more and more cases is having a sapping effect on morale as well as increasing tension with the local Shia community. There is also a growing awareness that there was a breakdown in discipline after the official end of war than has been admitted. One officer said: "The traditional response has been to say that these were just a few bad apples. But one has to look at the number of regiments affected. In particular one must address the issue of leadership and just what kind of control the officers were keeping of their men."

A colleague added: "There is a realisation that some serious questions have to be asked when all these court proceedings are over." Some Iraqi civilians in Basra insisted last night they were not surprised by the charges over the death of Mr Abdullah and claimed that abuse by British troops was far more widespread than had been made public. Kefa Taha was arrested along with Baha Mousa from a hotel in Basra and claims that he was severely beaten while in custody. British Army hospital records say that he was admitted for treatment with "renal failure ... and severe bruising to his upper abdomen and the right side of his chest.

Mr Taha, 44, who is seeking compensation from the British government, told The Independent last night: "We were treated very badly ... But we were not the only ones ... It is just that it is not known in Britain."

Mohammed Kareem Raadh, 37, an electrical engineer, said: "I know of people who have been shot by British troops. This does not surprise us here."

However, Aamir al-Hussein, a doctor, said: "These things happened during a short period and they have stopped. People who complain should remember what it was like under Saddam, how many hundreds were killed, how many hundreds disappeared."