Soldiers deny they murdered Iraqi in unprovoked attack

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The soldiers used their "rifle butts, helmets, fists and feet" on Nadhem Abdullah al-Saqer and another man as they lay on the ground. Two women who tried to intervene, one pregnant and the other who had just given birth, were also attacked.

The men, members of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, were said to have "walked away laughing and clapping" after vandalising a car and killing a pet dog.

Cpl Scott Evans, 32; Pte Billy Nerney, 24; Pte Samuel May, 25; Pte Morné Vosloo, 26; as well as former privates Daniel Harding, 25; Roberto Di-Gregorio, 24; and Scott Jackson, 26; deny murder and violent disorder over the death of Mr Abdullah on 11 May 2003. The military court in Colchester, Essex, was told that Mr Abdullah is likely to have been killed by a blow to the back of the head. DNA tests on bloodstains found on Pte May's rifle butt matched Mr Abdullah's blood.

The graphic description of the fatal encounter on the road in southern Iraq, near the village of al-Farkah, unfolded during the first case of British servicemen charged with the murder of a civilian in the Iraq conflict.

The incident took place three weeks after the announcement of the formal "cessation" of hostilities by President George Bush.

The soldiers were meant to bring security and order during the anarchic aftermath of the invasion. Instead, Martin Heslop QC, prosecuting, said: "They brutally assaulted a number of unarmed Iraqi civilians, causing serious injuries from which one died. During the course of the incident, two women who tried to intervene were assaulted, one being pregnant at the time and the other having given birth three days before ... This is not a case of soldiers responding under attack nor being required to defend themselves in an operational engagement. It was, I'm afraid to say, nothing more than gratuitous violence meted out on a number of innocent and unarmed civilians. These assaults were unjustified and wholly unprovoked."

Mr Abdullah's death took place near Uzayr, in Maysan province, north of Basra - one of the most volatile areas under British control. Clashes between parts of the local population and British forces began soon after, and a month later, six Royal Military Policemen were killed while taking refuge at a police station in nearby Majir al-Kabir.

The case, heard before Jeff Blackett, the Judge Advocate, and a panel of seven military jurors, is expected to last for 10 weeks. Iraqi witnesses will appear during the proceedings to give evidence for the first time in Britain in an abuse case related to the war.

Plans for the court to visit the alleged site of the crime in Maysan this week were abandoned following the deaths of two British soldiers in Basra yesterday and general concern about deteriorating security.

Three of the accused wore their paratrooper's uniforms while the others were in civilian clothes. They all remained impassive, staring ahead fixedly, as the prosecution repeatedly stressed the "brutal" nature of the attack.

The court heard that on the morning of his death Mr Abdullah had been travelling to a local market accompanied by a friend, A'athar Finnjan Saddam.

The two-vehicle paratrooper patrol, callsign Delta 21 Charlie, was in a Pinzgauer vehicle and a Land Rover on Route 6, a road much used for smuggling guns and drugs.

The soldiers were looking out for a suspect white vehicle when they came across Mr Finnjan's white Toyota four-wheel drive, with Mr Abdullah sitting in the front passenger seat.

When the vehicle was forced to stop, two brothers at the back, Kazem and Zugraher al-Mohamadwi, "walked away". "At this point the deceased and the driver were dragged from the vehicle and made to lie face down on the ground and then assaulted by the soldiers ... the men did little more than simply lie there suffering the blows."

The court heard that the mistreatment was seen by people in al-Farkah village, including a major in the Iraqi police and the two women, one of whom was Mr Finnjan's sister, Dalal. Both were struck as they tried to stop the soldiers. The Iraqi witnesses said the paratroopers then kicked Mr Finnjan's car and slashed the tyres. They tracked down the Mohamadwi brothers and beat them.

Mr Abdullah was taken to his family home and from there to a local clinic where it was decided that his injuries were so severe that he should be taken to a hospital in Amarah. He died on the way there.

No post mortem has been carried out on Mr Abdullah's body. Iraqi witnesses have not identified the accused soldiers as the ones who carried out the assaults, but Mr Heslop said they were the only British soldiers at the location and forensic evidence linked them to the crime.

The seven paratroopers, who were interviewed twice - in November 2003 and May last year - claimed not to remember the violence.

The hearing was adjourned until next Monday.