A year-long public inquiry into whether UK soldiers unlawfully killed Iraqi civilians in custody in 2004 ended suddenly on Thursday, as the dead civilians' relatives told the enquiry that they no longer believe there is enough evidence to back the claims.
Lawyers representing Iraqi families withdrew their claim that was that the troops had killed unarmed civilians they had captured and brought back to an army base – the most serious charge levelled against British soldiers in Iraq.
In a statement, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) said there was insufficient evidence to support the claim. "Following the conclusion of the military evidence and current state of disclosure by the MoD (ministry of defence), it is our view there is insufficient material to establish that Iraqi civilians were unlawfully killed whilst in the custody of British troops at Camp Abu Naji [the British camp north of Basra]," the law firm said.
It added, "There remain numerous allegations of violent and other ill-treatment of Iraqi civilians in British custody which the inquiry will have to consider." The families say it is still possible that ill-treatment occurred at the camp but outside of the medical centre.
Patrick O'Connor QC, representing the Iraqis, told the inquiry their concession did not mean they did not believe some Iraqis may have been unlawfully killed on a battlefield – although that would be out of the scope of the inquiry. Sir Thayne Forbes, the inquiry chairman, said the statement was "of very considerable significance".
John Dickinson of PIL said, "From the outset the families have had the simple objective of discovering the extent of any wrongdoing and if so how it came about and who was responsible."
The al-Sweady inquiry, taking its name from a 19-year-old Iraqi allegedly killed by British troops, was set up after the courts castigated the MoD for not conducting its own investigation into the allegations made over a fierce gunfight on 14 May 2004, known as the battle of Danny Boy after a British checkpoint near Majar al-Kabir, north of Basra.
High court judges accused the MoD of "lamentable" behaviour and serious breaches of its duty of candour.
Iraqi families' claims appear to have been prompted by an order from senior British army officers that Iraqis killed in the battle should be brought back to Camp Abu Naji. Nine Iraqis were also captured.
Army witnesses to the inquiry said they had never before heard of such an order. It was prompted, the inquiry heard, to learn whether a ringleader behind the massacre of six British military police officers nearly a year before, was among the dead.
The bodies of the dead were taken to an Iraqi hospital the day after the battle – in which weapons ranging from high-velocity rifles to fixed bayonets, were used – the inquiry heard. Many of them were in a horrific state, so horrific that the inquiry has said it will not publish photographs of them.
Some of the families of the dead alleged that their relatives had been killed in the British camp.
The inquiry has also heard mounting evidence that some Iraqis captured after the battle were mistreated by British troops. Some soldiers admitted abusing their prisoners, some changed their evidence. The inquiry also heard that commanders of the 1 Battalion Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (1PWRR) obstructed attempts by the military police to conduct its own investigation.
The inquiry has sat for 167 days – over 42 weeks – and heard evidence from 281 witnesses, of which 55 were Iraqi and 221 from the British military. It has cost £22 million so far.
Closing submissions will be heard next month and Forbes hopes to complete his report by the end of the year. What happened during the battle of Danny Boy itself was outside the terms of the inquiry.
However, Wednesday's concessions may have serious implications for more than 100 other cases involving allegations of abuse by British troops during the Iraqi insurgency.
The inquiry has heard dramatic evidence, both of the intense fighting after the soldiers were ambushed and how unprepared the troops – from experienced sergeants to raw teenagers newly recruited to the army – were for the insurgency.
Francis Myatt, 1PWRR's chaplain, told the inquiry: "I've never seen so many dead in one place."