British soldiers have shot and killed Iraqi civilians, including an 8-year-old girl, in situations where the troops were under no apparent threat, Amnesty International (search) alleged Tuesday.

A report by the human rights group said the military failed to investigate many cases in which British soldiers killed civilians in Iraq (search), and the inquiries they did undertake were too secretive.

The Ministry of Defense told The Associated Press that it would comment after it had time to examine the allegations in detail.

Amnesty also reported that armed groups and individuals had killed dozens or possibly hundreds of civilians in British-controlled southern Iraq, and many people were afraid to even discuss the killings. It said Iraqis had little confidence that the British military or Iraqi police could protect them.

"We are told in the U.K. that southern Iraq is comparatively safe and secure. Yet Iraqis on the ground have painted a very different picture," said Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International U.K. "People live in fear of armed groups who can strike with seeming impunity."

Amnesty said the allegations of killings by British forces were based on its representatives' visits to southern Iraq in February and March. The delegates interviewed shooting victims' families, witnesses, Iraqi police officers and Coalition Provisional Authority (search) officials, the report said.

The group said it could not estimate how many Iraqi civilian deaths British troops had caused.

In one example, the report said a soldier from the 1st Battalion of the King's Regiment fatally shot 8-year-old Hanan Saleh Matrud in the town of Karmat 'Ali in August.

A witness, Mizher Jabbar Yassin, had told Amnesty researchers a soldier aimed at Hanan and shot her from about 60 yards away, the group said.

It quoted a letter from the First Battalion of the King's Regiment that said soldiers had fired a warning shot near a mob that was throwing stones at a British patrol.

A few minutes later, soldiers saw that Hanan had a serious abdominal wound, according to the letter Amnesty says was from the battalion to the child's family, dated Oct. 12, 2003.

"The suggestion was that this wound [was] sustained as a result of the warning shot, which has not been proven, but accepted as a possibility," Amnesty quoted the letter as saying.

The Ministry of Defense said it was aware of the Amnesty report but had not been able to examine its allegations in detail. A spokesman said the ministry was "considering the points raised and will give a detailed response in due course."

"We take our obligations under international law seriously and attach great importance to upholding human rights in all circumstances," the spokesman added.

Amnesty also criticized the British military's investigative procedures, saying officers had too much discretion in deciding whether to launch an inquiry when a civilian was killed. The group also said investigations should be more transparent.

"The investigations have been shrouded in secrecy -- some victims have not even been aware that they have been opened," the report said. "Families of victims have also not been given adequate information on how to apply for compensation."