Behind three lines in a secret Army log lies real story of an alleged war crime

Officers and soldiers are in the dock on some of the most serious charges brought against the Army. Severin Carrell reports
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The early morning raid was supposed to be a routine security operation by British troops to find an alleged terrorist weapons cache, and round up suspected Iraqi insurgents.

The early morning raid was supposed to be a routine security operation by British troops to find an alleged terrorist weapons cache, and round up suspected Iraqi insurgents.

Instead, it ended in the violent death of an Iraqi civilian, a hotel receptionist called Baha Mousa, and allegations that British troops systematically assaulted and tortured up to eight other Iraqis captured with him.

And now, at least one senior officer, alongside up to four other members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, face some of the most serious charges yet brought against the British military - charges of war crimes and of murder.

For the first time, a British Army commander, Colonel Jorge Mendonca, could face a court martial under either the Geneva Convention or recent British legislation outlawing war crimes under a treaty setting up the International Criminal Court. Either step would be a profound shock to the Army.

One well-placed Army source claimed: "As I understand it, charges are being considered under recent [ICC] legislation, the same legislation that includes war crimes. These are not specifically war crimes charges, but charges such as lack of supervision and things like that."

The Mousa case has already led to a humiliating reprimand for the military by the High Court. It has raised questions about the quality and impartiality of the Army's own prosecutions system. As The Independent on Sunday revealed last year, senior British commanders blocked investigations into more than 20 separate abuse cases in Iraq.

With the Ministry of Defence now facing 40 cases of alleged abuse, torture and unlawful killing of Iraqi civilians, the High Court ruled last December that the UK was guilty of breaching the Human Rights Act by failing to prevent Mr Mousa's death, and for presiding over a botched investigation into his case.

It began early on the morning of 14 September 2003, when a QLR unit raided the Ibn al-Haytham hotel in Basra, rousing sleeping staff and shocked guests from their beds. It was noisy and chaotic, as troops worked their way from room to room, pushing and shoving the men downstairs towards the hotel lobby.

The raid came only two weeks after one of the QLR's most popular officers, Captain Dai Jones, had been killed by a roadside bomb. The hotel, their intelligence suggested, was used by the insurgents involved in Capt Jones's death. And the raid, codenamed Operation Salerno, was overseen by one of the Army's most senior commanders in south-east Iraq. Brigadier William Moore, commander of all 4,000 British troops in the city, was standing on the hotel's roof.

Iraqi witnesses allege the raid quickly unravelled. The chief suspect, the hotel's co-owner, Haitham Vaha, escaped in the confusion. And several soldiers were allegedly seen stealing 4.5m Iraqi dinar from the hotel's safe by Mr Mousa's father, Colonel Daoud Mousa, a former Iraqi police chief. In front of their colleagues, Col Mousa later said, the troops were reprimanded and shoved into a military vehicle.

All nine men arrested at the hotel were taken to the British Army's headquarters in Basra. And there, allege the eight survivors, they were hooded, repeatedly punched, kicked, verbally abused and hit with iron bars by members of the QLR. In chilling testimony, the men recalled Mr Mousa's last words. The oldest victim, Sattar Shukri Abdulla, 51, said: "On the second day they took Baha Mousa to the bathroom. I used to hear him screaming. The last thing I heard from him was: 'I am dying, blood'."

The regiment's own record of Mr Mousa's death, in an Army log marked "secret", is terse. Timed at 22.42 on 15 September 2003, the three-line note reads: "Prisoner died in custody deceased at 2205 after CPR [resuscitation] from 2150 - Baha Nashen Mohamed - one of suspects from hotel raid yesterday."

QLR sources insisted yesterday that Col Mendonca personally ordered the military police inquiry after learning of the death. "We bitterly regret the death of Baha Mousa," a source said. "The battalion itself initiated the investigation. We would want to remind people of the extreme circumstances the battalion faced in those six months in Basra in 2003." The regiment was working in 50-degree heat, routinely tackling rioting, looting, armed robbery, kidnapping and terrorist activities. Their work has been recognised with 21 honours and awards - including Col Mendonca's Distinguished Service Order.

Yet, the other men allege, the abuse continued despite Mr Mousa's death. They contend that soldiers took turns to assault them.

One detainee, Kifah Taha, barely survived a series of assaults which left him with kidney failure. Another victim, Bahaa' Hashim Mohammed, 26, claimed: "Soldiers took it in turns beating us non-stop with their hands and boots as well as an iron bar."

More than 20 months have passed since Mr Mousa's death. But now following the direct involvement of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, Baha Mousa's father may a major step nearer getting justice for his son.