Seven British paratroopers are to go on trial accused of murdering an Iraqi teenager, the Attorney General said yesterday.
In what is the largest and possibly most damaging case to come to light, the members of the elite army unit are accused of killing 18-year-old Nadhem Abdullah in a roadside incident in 2003.
Coming at a time when the Army is reeling from photographs and allegations of sexual humiliation and abuse emanating from a court martial in Germany, the case will cause further embarrassment. It will also renew fears of revenge attacks such as the car bomb that seriously injured five soldiers last month following the release of the abuse pictures. In Basra yesterday, 12 troops escaped unhurt after a car bomb attack in the city centre. A civilian worker suffered minor injuries.
The allegations against the paratroops led to renewed calls for a full inquiry into claims of abuse by British soldiers. Already five cases of varying severity are under way with nine more in the pipeline. A further 52 cases are under investigation.
The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, said the Army Prosecuting Authority had directed that the soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment would face a court martial for joint charges of murder as well as violent disorder. The accusations relate to the death of Mr Abdullah following a roadside incident in Uzayr, south of Amarah, on 11 May 2003.
He died just nine days after George Bush, announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" and the charges are likely to raise questions about the transition from fighting to peacekeeping.
Lord Goldsmith named three of the accused men as Corporal Scott Evans, Private William Nerney and Daniel Harding, a former private who has since left the Army. The other four men, two of whom are said to have also left the Colchester-based regiment, will be named when they have been informed of the charges against them. In a written statement to the House of Lords, Lord Goldsmith said that no date had yet been set for the trial or for a preliminary hearing.
Investigations into the case have been continuing since last summer. The British Army has twice asked to exhume the body but Mr Abdullah's family have refused permission.
Last week a soldier pleaded guilty in a case involving the wounding of a 13-year-old boy in the same southern Iraqi town. Private Alexander Johnston, of the 1st Battalion, the King's Own Scottish Borderers, admitted negligent discharge of his weapon, was fined £750 and ordered to pay the victim £2,000.
The Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price, who has raised the issue in Parliament, said last night that the latest case proved once again the need for a general inquiry into possible abuses during military activities in Iraq.
"They can't keep saying it is just of few wrong 'uns, a few bad apples. This suggests at the very least there is a general problem which has to be investigated," the MP said.
"The Americans have had five separate official investigations as well as two congressional inquiries. Apart from the courts martial, there has not been a single attempt to have a general inquiry by the Government.
"We now have multiple allegations of mistreatment involving UK forces. I don't think it is enough to punish those deemed to be possibly directly involved. We need a fully independent inquiry into all these allegations so that we can minimise the risk of this abuse happening in future. We need to investigate systematic failures in the chain of command."
The Ministry of Defence refused to comment last night on any aspect of the case involving the seven paratroopers.
But, a military expert, Colonel Mike Dewar, said: "I think we have to keep [the allegations] in the context of how few these cases are.
"Sixty-five thousand troops have been in Iraq in the last 15 months or so, and we're talking about a number of cases on two or three hands."