LONDON – Britain's defense ministry ordered an inquiry Monday into allegations that Iraqi civilians were tortured and killed by British troops following a fierce gunbattle in Iraq in 2004.
Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell said in a statement the study will examine events that followed clashes near the southern Iraqi town of Majar al-Kabir.
Six Iraqi civilians are suing the British military and have demanded a full public inquiry into claims that about 20 detainees were killed and others mistreated. Five of the Iraqi men say they were threatened with violence, thrown against walls, struck by guards and denied water by British troops
Defense officials say there is no evidence that any civilian was mistreated by British troops.
Judges considering the civilians' lawsuit at London's High Court said their attempts to get to the truth of the case had been hampered by the British government's reluctance to provide some evidence. The government said it couldn't make some details public because of national security concerns.
Rammell suggested that sensitive material could be included in a future inquiry — most likely because it would not be produced in public, but in private sessions.
"A fresh investigation would assist everyone to come to a clear and full determination of the facts," Rammell said in a statement.
Rammell said judges considering the case need to approve the plan for an inquiry. The judges are expected to make a decision on that Friday.
Britain claims soldiers fought Iraqi insurgents after a convoy was ambushed along the main road between Baghdad and the southern city of Basra on May 14, 2004. Several soldiers have been decorated for bravery in the battle, which included the British army's first bayonet charge in two decades.
The ministry says soldiers picked up 20 bodies from the battlefield, along with nine survivors, and handed the corpses over to Iraqi authorities the next day. It strongly denies accusations of mistreatment or murder, and says the dead were insurgents.
Lawyers for the Iraqis claim they were civilian laborers caught up in the violence.
Abuse claims were first made shortly after the battle. A Royal Military Police investigation found no wrongdoing by British forces. Military police began a new investigation into the five men's claims in December, but it has not reached a public finding yet.
The actions of British forces in Iraq have previously come under scrutiny.
Three British soldiers were jailed by a military court and dismissed from the military after being convicted of abusing Iraqi civilians at a camp near Basra in 2003.
A public inquiry is due to begin next week into the death of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist who died in September 2003 in Basra, having suffered 93 different injuries, including a broken nose and fractured ribs. An autopsy said he died of asphyxia, caused by a stress position that soldiers forced him to maintain.
Corp. Donald Payne, who became Britain's first convicted war criminal, was dismissed by the army and sentenced to a year in prison in 2007 in the killing. Six other soldiers who were cleared due to a lack of evidence.
William Gage, a retired Court of Appeal judge, is leading the public inquiry into Mousa's death.