Allegations of murder and torture made against British soldiers by Iraqi detainees were “deliberate lies”, a five-year public inquiry has ruled.
The £31m Al-Sweady Inquiry found claims that up to 20 Iraqis were killed and mutilated after a 2004 battle were “reckless speculation”.
The murder allegations were withdrawn from the inquiry earlier this year.
The report also found British soldiers mistreated nine Iraqi detainees, but it was not deliberate ill-treatment.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the inquiry “puts to rest once and for all these shocking and, as we now know, completely baseless allegations”.
Inquiry chairman Sir Thayne Forbes said the “most serious allegations” which “have been hanging over these soldiers for the past 10 years” have been found to be “without foundation.”
A Number 10 spokesman said: “Where there are allegations of mistreatment, it is right and proper we look into and learn lessons from the past.”
Mr Fallon said the inquiry – set up in 2009 – has cost the taxpayer £31m.
The hearing took evidence about the actions of soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, who were ambushed by insurgents, leading to a three-hour gun battle that became known as the Battle of Danny Boy.
Sir Thayne, a former High Court judge, found there had been instances of ill-treatment during “tactical questioning” of the detainees at Camp Abu Naji, near Majar-al-Kabir in southern Iraq, on the night of 14 May.
These included blindfolding the prisoners, depriving them of food and sleep and using threatening interrogation techniques contrary to the Geneva Convention.
But Sir Thayne said Iraqi detainees who alleged they were tortured and abused – and subjected to mock executions – had given evidence that was “unprincipled in the extreme” and “wholly without regard to the truth”.
BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale said anger – as well as a sense of vindication – would be felt inside the Ministry of Defence and the Army.
The report said that soldiers responded to the ambush with “exemplary courage, resolution and professionalism” but that the conduct of some individual soldiers, and some of the procedures of the military, “fell below the high standards normally to be expected of the British army”.
It found that:
- The detainees should have been given some privacy while being strip-searched and should have been given proper food when they were first detained
- They should not have been deprived of sleep before they were questioned or shouted at during interrogation
- They were deprived of sight by being made to wear blacked-out goggles for prolonged periods when this had no security purpose
It also described as “ill treatment” an interrogator banging a tent peg on a table and walking around a blindfolded detainee blowing on the back of his neck.
It is understood that the former Iraqi detainees – who are now known to have been armed insurgents at the time – will not pursue claims of compensation.
By Caroline Hawley, BBC News World Affairs Correspondent
Getting to the truth of what happened in southern Iraq after the Battle of Danny Boy has been a long, exhaustive and expensive process.
The inquiry had to hire former detectives to attempt to piece together events, before hearing from hundreds of military and Iraqi witnesses over the course of almost a year.
The allegations – some of the most serious ever to be levelled at British troops in Iraq – were always strenuously denied by the Ministry of Defence.
And the report is conclusive and hard-hitting. The claims of mistreatment for which the MoD is criticised are – in the scheme of things – relatively minor.
But yet the ministry does also have itself to blame because it was forced to agree to the inquiry after it was criticised for a “lamentable” failure to disclose relevant information to the courts – including the fact that three of the detainees had complained of their treatment to the Red Cross.
Lawyers acting for several Iraqi families had originally claimed some men taken from the battlefield were mistreated and killed at Camp Abu Naji and Shaibah Logistics Base.
But they withdrew those allegations – vigorously denied by the MoD – in March this year after conceding there was “insufficient material” to support those accusations.
Sir Thayne explained that the bodies of the dead Iraqis were taken from the battlefield because British forces were searching for a suspect in the murders of six Royal Military Policemen in Majar-al-Kabir in June 2003.
He said removing the bodies had led to “rumours, stories and speculation” being spread among the local population .
Sir Thayne said perhaps the “most significant lie of many” was that 19-year-old Hamid Al-Sweady – after whom the inquiry was named – had been alive when he was captured.
He said: “Such assertions as that undoubtedly played a part in the persistence of the completely false allegations that Iraqi men had been detained alive and then in effect murdered at Camp Abu Naji.”
‘No credible evidence’
In a House of Commons statement, Mr Fallon said the findings were “incontrovertible”.
“British soldiers did not carry out the atrocities that had been falsely attributed to them,” he told MPs.
Mr Fallon said it was “shameful” that the allegations of murder were only withdrawn in March.
He said the conduct of some of the lawyers acting for the detainees would be investigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
He called on those lawyers to issue an “unequivocal apology to the soldiers whose reputations they attempted to traduce” as well as “to the taxpayers who have had to pay the cost of exposing these lies”.
John Dickinson of Public Interest Lawyers, which represented some of the families of Iraqis who made accusations against British soldiers, said it was not his place to apologise for the “situation which arose”, adding that the inquiry could have been dealt with “more speedily”.
Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said: “None of what the report found justifies what the inquiry said was untruthful evidence and deliberate lies from the accusers. Those who made the false allegations have not and will not besmirch the good name of our brave servicemen and women.”
General Sir Nicholas Carter, Chief of the General Staff, said the report would be a “huge relief” to the soldiers and families who had been affected, adding that “appropriate lessons” should be learned from the case.
Sir Thayne is making nine separate recommendations based on his findings. He said improvements had to be made to the collection, storage and ability to search documents and records.
Other recommendations include the need for better arrest records for detainees in theatres of war.