Lawyers acting for nearly 200 Iraqis went to court Tuesday to demand an independent and public investigation into abuses allegedly carried out by U.K. forces in Iraq.
Such an inquiry could shed a harsh light on the behavior of British soldiers as they and their American allies struggled to control an insurgency whose violent aftershocks are still echoing across Iraq.
"Some of the cases are truly shocking," said Phil Shiner, whose firm, Public Interest Law, is representing the 192 Iraqis. Speaking outside London's High Court, he described the case of a grandmother "who is led away alive ... seen by her husband and her son alive, then found a few hours later in a British body bag very much dead, with signs of torture.
"I could go on and on and on," he added.
Allegations of British abuses have been trickling out since British forces joined the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Most notable was the case of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, whose death in a sweltering detention facility outside the Iraqi city of Basra led to the first conviction of a British soldier under international war crimes legislation.
But many more Iraqi cases — 227, by the military's last count — have been dealt with quietly, settled out of court for figures that collectively amount to more than 15 million pounds (more than $24 million).
The military is currently conducting its own investigation into abuse allegations against British soldiers in Iraq, but the inquiry has been called into question by one former member who was quoted last year in the Guardian newspaper as calling the exercise "little more than a whitewash."
Attorney Michael Fordham told the High Court on Tuesday that it was important for somebody independent to "pursue the truth of what happened."
Britain's military has described calls for a public inquiry as "premature and disproportionate," saying that such an exercise would likely take longer than the military investigation now under way.
The hearing is set for three days, with no decision expected for weeks. The ruling can be appealed.