The announcement of the charges against seven paratroopers for the alleged murder of an Iraqi civilian could not have come at a more sensitive time for British forces in the country.
With Islamist militants calling for a renewed campaign of violence after the national elections, and the expectation of disturbances when the results are announced, soldiers are already on a high state of alert.
A British Army convoy was hit yesterday by a blast in central Basra, injuring a civilian and damaging a Land Rover. Lieutenant-Colonel Phil Lewis, of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, said militants were venting their frustration over the successful elections. The murder charges also come after the widespread viewing in Iraq on the internet of photographs of abuse of prisoners shown at the court martial in Osnabrück and other reports of alleged malpractice.
The news about the paratroopers and their alleged part in the death of Nadhem Abdullah in May 2003 had not widely permeated Basra by yesterday evening. By today, however, it is expected to be publicised in time for the Friday prayers regularly used by militant Muslim clerics to preach against the US and British occupation.
Senior officers stress that the numbers of cases of alleged abuse are small considering the large presence of forces in Iraq over the past 15 months. But they also acknowledge that the continuous "drip" effect of more and more cases is having a sapping effect on morale as well as increasing tension with the local Shia community. There is also a growing awareness that there was a breakdown in discipline after the official end of war.
One officer said: "The traditional response has been to say that these were just a few bad apples. But one has to look at the number of regiments affected.
"In particular one must address the issue of leadership and just what kind of control the officers were keeping of their men." A colleague added: "There is a realisation that some serious questions have to be asked when all these court proceedings are over."
Some Iraqi civilians in Basra insisted last night they were not surprised by the charges over the death of Mr Abdullah and claimed that abuse by British troops was far more widespread than had been made public.
Kefa Taha was arrested at a hotel in Basra in September 2003 and claims he was severely beaten in custody. British Army hospital records say he was admitted with "renal failure ... and severe bruising to his upper abdomen and the right side of his chest". The hotel's receptionist, Baha Mousa, was also arrested at the time and died in custody. Mr Taha, 44, who is seeking compensation from the Government, told The Independent last night: "We were treated very badly ... But we were not the only ones ... It is just that it is not known in Britain."
Mohammed Kareem Raadh, 37, an electrical engineer, said: "I know of people who have been shot by British troops. This does not surprise us here."
Aamir al-Hussein, a doctor, said: "These things happened during a short period and they have stopped. People who complain should remember what it was like under Saddam, how many hundreds were killed, how many hundreds disappeared."
THE AUDIT OF CHARGES AGAINST THE ARMY
There are five ongoing or completed cases.
* Seven members of The 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment are accused of murdering Nadhem Abdullah in Uzayr on 11 May 2003.
* The ongoing court martial in Germany in which three soldiers from The 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are accused of abusing and assaulting prisoners near Basra in May 2003. A fourth has admitted a related charge.
* Private Alexander Johnston, of The 1st Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, last week admitted negligent discharge of his weapon. He was on guard duty in Uzayr when a boy of 13 was wounded on 2 August 2003. He pleaded guilty, was fined £750 and ordered to pay the victim £2,000. He remains with his unit.
* Trooper Kevin Williams, 21, of The 2nd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment is charged with murdering Hassan Said in Ad-Dayr in south-east Iraq on or before 3 August 2003. He is next due before the Old Bailey in September
* A soldier is due to face trial for allegedly faking abuse pictures.
Eight cases are under consideration by the Army Prosecuting Authority. They include:
* Two soldiers were arrested in connection with the death of 17-year-old Ahmed Jabbar Kareem, who was allegedly beaten before drowning in Basra in May 2003.
* The case of the hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, who was arrested in a raid by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in September 2003 and died in custody.
One case is being investigated by the CPS.
The death of Sergeant Steve Roberts, 33, who was killed by "friendly fire". Sgt Roberts, from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, died on 24 March 2003.
An Iraqi is also understood to have been killed.
An army officer and four soldiers potentially face charges.
There are 52 further casesstill to be investigated.
The Birmingham-based campaigning lawyer Phil Shiner also has 40 potential civil cases of alleged abuse.Reuse content