Allegations that British troops in Iraq were guilty of killing civilians and “terrifying acts of brutality” were made at the High Court today.
Women, the elderly and children were among the victims of indiscriminate action following the invasion of Iraq, according to an 82-page document put before two judges.
Lawyers representing nearly 200 Iraqis are seeking a public inquiry into allegations that British interrogators were guilty of a number of unlawful killings as well as incidents of torture in British-controlled detention facilities.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is investigating the claims through the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT).
But Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), which is acting for 192 Iraqis, say IHAT is not sufficiently independent to investigate alleged "systemic" human rights violations on a huge scale.
PIL argues there has already been too long a delay and only a fully independent inquiry can deliver justice.
Michael Fordham QC, appearing for the Iraqis, said at the start of a three-day hearing at London's High Court: "Enough is enough. There must be a public inquiry in relation to the credible and prima facie cases of human rights violations perpetrated by the British military in Iraq from 2003-09."
The QC told Sir John Thomas, president of the Queen's Bench Division, and Mr Justice Silber it was necessary "for somebody independent to grasp this nettle and pursue the truth of what happened, and its implications, compatibly with the rule of law. That is the big point".
Mr Fordham said the decision to allow officers of the Royal Navy Police to sit as members of IHAT, when numerous Royal Navy officers were involved in interrogations, did not satisfy "the relevant standard of independence" required by a truly independent inquiry.
PIL says, in addition to the 192 civilians represented today, more than 800 others are making allegations against the British military.
Out of court, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said of compensation claims made by Iraqis: "We have now settled 227 claims to a total value of £15.1 million."
Since last December, the MoD had reached agreement in a further 22 claims, with a total sum of just over £1.1 million.
But the MoD argues a public inquiry would be "premature and disproportionate".
The MoD spokeswoman said: "The establishment now of a wide-ranging public inquiry to consider alleged systemic issues would be premature and disproportionate.
"It is also likely that any single public inquiry would take much longer than the investigations already being undertaken.
"It is important we allow the IHAT to get on with this important work and not be distracted by challenges to its competence and independence.
"The MoD takes all allegations of abuse seriously which is precisely why we set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team to ensure that all allegations are, or have been, investigated appropriately.
"We await the conclusions of the ongoing IHAT investigations and inquiries and will respond to all of their recommendations in due course."
Last year the Court of Appeal ruled that IHAT lacked "the requisite independence" and said ministers had failed to comply with obligations under human rights legislation.
In the wake of that ruling, ministers removed the Royal Military Police from IHAT and replaced them with officers of the Royal Navy Police.
But the Iraqis say that does not go far enough and a fully independent, judge-led inquiry remains necessary.
Today Mr Fordham said it was "undeniable" that allegations of systemic abuse fell within the ambit of human rights legislation protecting against inhuman and degrading treatment.
He said Killings and deaths in custody "cry out for a public domain investigation".
The MoD argues that the claim that the Royal Navy Police are not sufficiently independent is "inconsistent" with the appeal court decision.
Establishing a wide-ranging public inquiry now, while the investigation of individual cases was taking place, would be "inefficient, premature and disproportionate".
MoD lawyers say the Defence Secretary will continue to give "anxious consideration" to the IHAT investigations.
In written MoD submissions to the court, prepared by Philip Havers QC and James Eadie QC, it is stated that if evidence of systemic abuse of civilians does emerge, consideration will then be given to holding "a broad-ranging public inquiry" along the lines contended for by the Iraqi applicants.
The MoD lawyers also say: "Comprehensive steps have been taken by the secretary of state, and will continue to be taken, to ensure lessons are learned from events in Iraq.
"In particular ... a significant amount of work has already been done to ensure that MoD policies and training on tactical questioning and interrogation (TQ&I) are lawful and fit for purpose."
Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Phil Shiner, from Public Interest Lawyers, said there are "hundreds and hundreds" of Iraqis with "tens of thousands" of allegations of mistreatment.
"Some of the cases are truly shocking," he said. "A 62-year-old grandmother who is led away alive, she is seen by her husband and her son alive, then found a few hours later in a British body bag very much dead, with signs of torture.
"I could go on and on and on."
He said the abuse was systemic and only a public inquiry would see it properly investigated, rather than IHAT and the Royal Navy Police.
"The military can't investigate themselves, we need an independent judicial process here in London.
"There are systemic issues, it must be that those at the top of the military chain of command and the Civil Service knew or ought to have known what was going on."
Mr Shiner said abuse included unlawful detention, deaths in custody, and sexual techniques including threats of rape to Iraqi men as well as their wives.
He said the allegations needed to be tested thoroughly, but added: "These allegations need to be verified before a judge-led inquiry.
"But over nine years of acting for Iraqis, not one of my clients has been held to be over-egging the pudding or not to be telling the truth.
"It's easy to say they are mere allegations, there do need to be tests, I think it's exactly right, that needs to be done in public.
"The public need to be able to trust it, to say, 'Have you actually got your house in order?', so that next time there's an Iraq, what is done in our name won't be so shameful and plainly unlawful."
The dossier of alleged abuse before the court includes accusations of brutality by British soldiers on authorised "strike operations" to arrest specific targets for internment.
The dossier states: "Strike operations are known to have involved patterns of prime facie killings, together with terrifying acts of brutality".
There had been "abuse, intimidation and harm" with "indiscriminate action including women, the elderly and children".
The dossier, contained in a skeleton argument prepared by the PIL legal team, includes illustrations of hooded detainees, a video still of a civilian allegedly being beaten inside a vehicle and a kneeling man being threatened with a dog.
The dossier highlights reported deaths of Iraqis, including a man allegedly shot dead by British soldiers while queuing to buy petrol and another found drowned in the Shatt Al-Arab river after allegedly being beaten by soldiers.
Other deaths are recorded of individuals held in custody or allegedly shot by military patrols or during strike operations.
The court was told that the evidence revealed "a pattern of brutality on capture", as described in a leaked 2004 report of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
A "highly respected" tribal chief was arrested in a violent raid on his home, says the dossier, and "utterly humiliated when his genitals were exposed to the rest of the household, including the women".
Another detainee described how troops allegedly left his children in a room on their own "and smashed all the furniture around them".
Other detainees allegedly suffered ill treatment when being transported to detention centres, one of whom was said to have died aboard a Chinook helicopter.
Civilian detainees are alleged to have been subjected to a number of techniques to disorientate and debilitate them, including deprivation of sleep, food and water.
British troops are also accused of imposing hooding, forced nudity, sexual humiliation and repeated and lengthy interrogations.