British army officials have dismissed what they called "baseless rumours" that troops mutilated the bodies of dead Iraqi fighters after a 2004 battle, as a public inquiry heard its first evidence from military witnesses.
The Al-Sweady Inquiry is investigating claims that British troops committed human rights abuses in the aftermath of a notorious firefight near the town of Majar al-Kabir, southwest Iraq, that came to be known as the "Battle of Danny Boy" after a nearby checkpoint.
Troops are accused of unlawfully killing 20 or more Iraqis at Camp Abu Naji near Majar-al-Kabir in May 2004, and ill-treating detainees there as well as later at Shaibah Logistics Base, also in southwest Iraq.
But at a hearing in London on Monday, Colonel Adam Griffiths said he had not seen any evidence to suggest that about a dozen bodies taken to Camp Abu Naji were mutilated before being returned to relatives, or that detainees had been mistreated.
"I did not believe any of our soldiers had mutilated a body and I did not see at the time, and have not seen since, any evidence to support this proposition," he told the inquiry.
He suggested that the rumours sprang from "ignorance amongst the local population as to the traumatic injuries that can be suffered in combat" as well as fighters' efforts to discredit the US-led troops that had invaded Iraq in 2003.
Spiralling investigation cost
Some of the bodies had broken limbs as well as gunshot wounds, Griffiths said, but he believed those injuries could have been caused by ammunition.
The colonel admitted that an order to take the bodies back to the camp was "highly unusual".
He insisted the order must have been given for good reason -- possibly to help identify a suspect in the murder of six British military policemen the year before.
Sergeant James Gadsby, who helped unload the bodies at Camp Abu Naji, also said in evidence to the hearing that the corpses appeared to have only battlefield injuries.
"I did not observe any injuries that I believe were inconsistent with having been sustained as a result of the firing of ammunition commonly used on the battlefield," he said.
Set up in 2009, the Al-Sweady Inquiry has been hearing testimony since March but until Monday only experts and Iraqi witnesses had spoken.
Up to 200 British military witnesses are set to give evidence in the coming months.
The inquiry - named after one of the dead men, 19-year-old Hamid Al-Sweady -is the second investigation into the abuse allegations, after high court judges ruled that an earlier investigation by the Royal Military Police was inadequate.
There have been complaints in Britain over the spiralling cost of the investigation, which currently stands at £19 million ($30m).