"The army prosecuting authority has begun legal proceedings and details will be announced by the attorney-general in due course," a ministry spokesman said on Thursday.

 

The Daily Mail newspaper reported that up to seven British soldiers were to be charged with the murder of an Iraqi civilian near a checkpoint in southern Iraq.

 

The ministry spokesman said they were unable to comment further on ongoing proceedings.

 

Investigations

 

Britain, Washington's key ally in Iraq, has launched more than 131 investigations into deaths and injuries of Iraqis since joining the US-led invasion in March 2003.

 

The incidents range from combat deaths to road accidents and Iraqis who died in custody.

 

British soldier Kevin Williams became the first to be charged with murdering an Iraqi civilian last September when he appeared in a London court.

 

He will face trial later this year.

 

The court martial of three British soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi civilians is taking place at a British Army base in Germany.

 

Charge dropped

 

But British army prosecutors have dropped one of the charges against the soldiers accused of abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees in May 2003 because of lack of evidence, a court spokesman said on Thursday.

 

Lance corporal Darren Larkin no longer faces a charge of forcing two detainees to strip naked after the prosecution unexpectedly dropped the charge on Thursday morning, the spokesman said.

 

He said the prosecution had taken the step due to lack of evidence but gave no further details.

 

Larkin, one of three soldiers on trial at a British army base in Osnabrueck in northern Germany, has already pleaded guilty to a separate charge of assaulting a detainee.