Allegations that British soldiers murdered and mutilated 20 Iraqis are to be fully investigated after it emerged that ministers had attempted to warn Tony Blair about damaging evidence of the ill-treatment of battlefield prisoners five years ago.
The startling revelation in the High Court yesterday led to the Government withdrawing its objection to a judicial inquiry into the alleged massacre after the battle of "Danny Boy" involving British forces near Basra in May 2004.
Government lawyers now say that shortly afterwards, the Armed Forces Minister had written a draft confidential letter, addressed to No 10, which referred to complaints made by the International Committee of the Red Cross in connection with the alleged ill-treatment of detainees held by the army after the battle.
The discovery of the existence of the correspondence led the Government to withdraw its defence to a judicial inquiry into the alleged massacre and abuse of the Iraqis. Lawyers for the Iraqis and the families of those who died said the case raised allegations that were among the most serious in modern British military history.
Lord Justice Scott Baker, the senior judge in the High Court hearing, was yesterday scathing about the Government's conduct of the case.
"The [court] procedures [so far] have been a complete waste of time and of vast expense..." The judge also made clear his concerns about the "credibility" of the public interest immunity system which allows the Government to stop secret evidence being disclosed in court cases.
Clive Lewis QC, for the Government, said an email from 2004, which included the draft letter written to the Prime Minister's office warning of the Red Cross report, had only been discovered last week on a "mislabelled" CD located in a Whitehall cupboard.
The document also included suggested "lines" that ministers could take should the allegations of abuse, including injuries resulting from bayonets, become public.
In the letter, Adam Ingram, the then armed forces minister, says: "The main concern of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) involved the alleged mistreatment of 9 internees who were brought to the Divisional Temporary Detention Facility (DTDF) following a contact incident near Al Majaar Al Kabir on 14 May. Most of these internees have injuries they allege occurred during their arrest (prior to arrival at the DTDF). In the opinion of the ICRC doctor, the injuries that these internees had sustained to their wrists indicated that excessive force was used to manhandle the prisoners post apprehension."
Mr Ingram's letter adds: "The ICRC doctor also indicated that some of the prisoners had received injuries to one side of the face, which would have likely occurred in a situation where the internee was held down. At the meeting the ICRC formally requested that an investigation was launched into these allegations."
Rabinder Singh QC, for the Iraqis, accused the Government's key witness, Colonel Dudley Giles, of "not telling the truth" about the evidence.
Mr Singh said documents disclosed only last week demonstrated that all nine detainees held by the British after the battle complained to the Red Cross about being ill-treated after arrest.
Somebody seemed to have assured ministers that the Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch had launched an investigation into the allegations. Yet the court heard that the claimants did not make such complaints to the Red Cross and therefore there was no need for an investigation.
Phil Shiner, the lawyer who has brought these claims of military abuse to the UK courts, said he welcomed the inquiry decision.
Mazin Younis, of the Iraqi League, said: "The Iraqi families who believe their loved ones were tortured to death have been waiting for such an historical moment. Now... we will do our utmost to uncover the story... that led to the deaths of their sons."
In the case before the court yesterday six Iraqis were asking the court to order an independent public inquiry into accusations that soldiers may have killed up to 20 captives held after the gun battle in southern Iraq.
In a 20-day hearing, lawyers for the Iraqis presented evidence they said supported their contentions that captives were taken to a British base, Camp Abu Naji, and tortured, murdered and their bodies mutilated.
The Ministry of Defence denies that British soldiers were responsible for any ill-treatment of the Iraqis.
But yesterday the Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth conceded at the High Court that there was insufficient information before the judges for them to be able to make a fully-informed judgment on the allegations.
Since the start of the High Court hearing, MoD lawyers have argued that the 20 who died were killed during the fighting and an independent and effective investigation has already been held by the Royal Military Police.
Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell said after the adjournment: "It is clear... that no-one was murdered or ill-treated by British forces. It is also clear British forces did not mutilate corpses on the battlefield, and there is independent expert testimony to support this. However... we regret that we have failed to provide the court with timely and sufficient disclosure of information to enable them to determine the facts."
Long road to justice?
*14 May 2004: The "Battle of Danny Boy", a firefight between British soldiers and Iraqi insurgents near the town of Al Majar-al-Kabir, Maysan.
*15 May: 20 dead bodies were returned to Iraqi families by UK forces.
*17-19 May: The ICRC visits the detention centre. Allegations of mistreatment emerge: ICRC doctors accept there are grounds for concern and call on the British to investigate.
*19 May: A draft letter is drawn up by Armed Forces Minister to Tony Blair informing him of the allegations.
*October 2007: Judicial review proceedings issued.
*April 2009: Government denies any wrongdoing on behalf of the soldiers and says the Iraqis were killed during the gun battle.
*6 July: Government concedes that there should be a new investigation.