Colonel Jorge Mendonca, 41, of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, is among seven soldiers charged over the death of Baha Mousa, 26, a hotel worker who died in British custody.
In an unusual move that shows the level of disquiet over the charge, Brigadier Geoffrey Sheldon, the Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment, issued a public statement defending Colonel Mendonca, while other senior officers spoke privately of a "politically motivated witch-hunt".
However, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, issued a robust response last night, stating: " It is utterly wrong and unfounded to suggest that charges have been brought in these cases for political reasons ...
"Where allegations of serious wrongdoing are made, they must be fully investigated and prosecuted where evidence shows there is a realistic prospect of conviction."
The Defence Secretary, John Reid, said: "The system of military justice for our armed forces rightly operates independently of ministers and the chain of command. I, therefore, have no role of any kind in the investigation of offences or the process that results in decisions by the independent military prosecuting authorities about who should face military justice, and under what charges. This is a process in which defence ministers have no authority, control or power."
The row is the latest manifestation of the deep discontent the Iraq war has created within much of the military. Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal of British soldiers will be delayed by the upsurge of violence and soaring death tolls among civilians in the country.
Leaked Ministry of Defence documents had revealed the Government was secretly preparing options for substantial cuts in troop numbers. But, in answer to a question from the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, about the likely date of a significant withdrawal, Mr Blair replied: "I can't give a specific date."
The scale of violence in Iraq has risen drastically after a lull at the time of the election. Mr Blair said: "If this terrorism is happening in Iraq and it is aimed at destroying the possibility of that country becoming a democracy, what should our response be? My response is to stand firm and see it through to the end ..."
The Conservative MP Ben Wallace, a former frontline officer with the Scots Guards, said: "If we are charging some of these men with neglect of their duties then we must recognise the chain of command does not stop with commanding officers but goes right to the door of No 10. Tony Blair cannot wipe away the guilt of the Iraq war on the backs of brave Lancashire men."
The decision to prosecute Colonel Mendonca follows a court-martial in Osnabrück, Germany, earlier this year that centred on detainee abuses at Camp Breadbasket, a food storage depot, near Basra.
It was labelled a "farce" by representatives of the alleged victims and no senior officers were prosecuted.
Colleagues of Colonel Mendonca, who is an MBE and has been awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal, say he was 13 miles away at the time of Mr Mousa's death and that he promptly set up an inquiry.
Brigadier Geoffrey Sheldon said: "From the moment that Baha Mousa lost his life while in our custody, the regiment has made clear this was an isolated, tragic incident that should never have happened and which I, and every member of The Queen's Lancashire Regiment, bitterly regrets.
"It was Colonel Jorge Mendonca, then the commanding officer, who, as soon as he learnt of Mr Mousa's death, initiated the formal inquiry that has now resulted in these charges being brought. It is, therefore, particularly difficult for us to learn that Colonel Mendonca must himself now answer charges as a result."
Army in the dock
About 30 British servicemen face charges or have been prosecuted over allegations of abusing Iraqi civilians. There have been 176 investigations into the conduct of British troops. Of these cases, 156 have now been closed while a further 20 remain outstanding. Four involve allegations of abuse.
CONVICTED OF ABUSE:
Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
Three soldiers, Cpl Daniel Kenyon and L/Cpl Darren Larkin and L/Cpl Mark Cooley were convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Camp Breadbasket in southern Iraq. Another, Fusilier Gary Bartlam, had earlier pleaded guilty to taking the pictures.
CHARGED WITH ABUSE:
Queen's Lancashire Regiment
War crimes allegations against the servicemen relate to incidents in Basra btween 13 and 15 September 2003. Seven soldiers are accused of a number of offences against Iraqi detainees arrested during fa raid on a hotel in southern Iraq. One of the detainees, Baha Mousa, was allegedly killed by one of these servicemen.
Irish and Scots Guards
Four servicemen face manslaughter charges relating to an incident in Basra on 8 May 2003 in which four suspected looters were detained. The soldiers allegedly punched and kicked the looters before forcing them into the Shatt al-Basra canal. One of the suspects, Ahmed Jabbar Kareem, drowned.
3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment
Seven men of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, are charged with murdering an Iraqi civilian, Nadhem Abdullah, at a roadside checkpoint, and violent disorder. They are awaiting court martial in Colchester in September.
Three Soldiers of an Unnamed Regiment
The Army Prosecuting Authority is still considering whether these men, accused of abusing Iraqis, should face court martial or have the allegation dismissed. It is believed the incident relates to another drowning case.
CLEARED OF ABUSE:
2nd Royal Tank Regiment
Trooper Kevin Williams, 22, was acquitted of murdering an Iraqi civilian two years ago. Trooper Williams shot Hassan Abbad Said while on patrol near Basra because he believed the man was about to grab a colleague's pistol.Reuse content