MoD inquiry into 48 suspect deaths

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The Independent Online

British military police have opened investigations into the deaths of 48 Iraqis - a jump of nearly a third in the previously disclosed official figure, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

British military police have opened investigations into the deaths of 48 Iraqis - a jump of nearly a third in the previously disclosed official figure, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The Ministry of Defence also admitted on Friday that armed forces police have investigated, or are still looking into, a total of 94 cases of alleged deaths in custody, illegal shootings, injuries and suspected ill-treatment involving British troops.

The latest figures, which are a significant rise in the last official statistics released by defence ministers in June, are set to climb even higher, officials have admitted.

The IoS has established that the MoD still has no clear figure for the number of Iraqis who have died in incidents involving British troops since the occupation officially began on 1 May last year.

After mounting allegations from lawyers and human rights group that abuses were being ignored, the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, ordered all military units that have served in Iraq to check their records and produce a full list of every incident where an Iraqi was killed.

In his last official figure to MPs, in June, Mr Ingram had said that 74 cases of alleged abuse, accidental deaths such as fatalities in crashes, and unlawful killings had been investigated in Iraq. Of those, 37 involved suspicious deaths.

The MoD's search for unreported deaths, expected to take several months, is the latest in a series of concessions being made by the Government over the armed forces' rules and policies in Iraq.

It has now emerged that the MoD quietly stripped regimental commanders in Iraq of their right to block police inquiries into suspicious deaths in February. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is now under intense pressure from the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, to abolish the right of commanding officers to block prosecutions.

The MoD is overhauling the use of "goodwill payments" to the families of dead civilians. This follows a series of controversies about low sums of money given in "ad hoc" compensation deals, including a £390 payment to the parents of an eight-year-old girl fatally wounded by a British army bullet.

In a further concession, ministers have also ordered the Royal Military Police to open an investigation into any death of an Iraqi, including the deaths of alleged insurgents killed in battles with troops. The MoD said this policy accounted for many, but not all, of the new cases under investigation.

The Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price said the latest figure was the highest number of deaths involving a British military peace-keeping operation or occupation for decades, and demanded an independent inquiry. "How many deaths will it take until the Government does what every other British Government has done - from Aden in the Sixties to Northern Ireland in the Seventies - and orders a full independent inquiry into all the circumstances surrounding these deaths?" he said. "We must learn the lessons from what seems to have gone wrong in Iraq."

Claims that dozens of Iraqi deaths have gone unreported or were not independently investigated are now a major cause of concern for human rights groups, becoming a key issue during last month's three-day High Court hearing into the conduct of British troops in Iraq. The hearing was told that Royal Military Police inquiries into four deaths, including the shooting of a woman having supper and a mini-van driver shot from behind, were stopped on the orders of the regiment's commanding officer.