By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - A British army officer told a public inquiry on Monday that allegations that soldiers in his company tortured and executed Iraqis after a battle in 2004 were baseless rumors spread by insurgents who wanted to discredit U.S.-led coalition forces.
Adam Griffiths was the first British military witness to give oral evidence about the allegations made by dozens of Iraqis, which if confirmed by the Al-Sweady Inquiry would go down as one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq war.
More than 200 British soldiers will appear in coming months before the inquiry, named after Hamid Al-Sweady, one of 20 Iraqi men who died in disputed circumstances at or after a battle near the southern Iraqi town of Majar al-Kabir on May 14, 2004.
The aim is to establish whether the 20 men died on the battlefield, as the British say, or whether they were captured alive and later executed and mutilated at a British military camp, as relatives and members of the local community allege.
The soldiers involved deny separate allegations by five men detained after the battle that they were tortured.
"The rumors were baseless and caused by a combination of ignorance amongst the local population as to the traumatic injuries that can be suffered in combat, and the misinformation spread by insurgents who wished to discredit the coalition forces," Griffiths told the inquiry in a witness statement.
Sixty Iraqi witnesses testified from March to June, some of whom alleged they had seen corpses with eyes gouged out, severed genitals and other signs of torture or mutilation.
"I did not observe anything that appeared to be inconsistent with battlefield injuries," Griffiths told the inquiry.
"I can recall that some of the limbs must have been broken as they were sticking out at unnatural angles," he said, adding such injuries could be caused by the weapons used in the battle.
A major at the time who was the officer commanding the company involved, Griffiths is not personally suspected of execution or torture. He still serves in the British army and has the rank of colonel.
The disputed events took place the day after the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrine, was damaged during fighting between U.S. troops and radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia.
With anger against foreign troops running high because of the Najaf incident, fighting broke out between a British convoy and armed insurgents on a road near Majar al-Kabir. Griffiths said the insurgents had staged several coordinated ambushes.
Several bodies were recovered by local people on the battlefield, but another 20 were handed over by the British the following day at Camp Abu Naji, a nearby army base. It was from that point that allegations of atrocities surfaced.
The military say the 20 died fighting and their bodies were taken to the camp to check whether any of them were among suspects who were wanted over the killing of six British military police in Majar al-Kabir in an incident in June 2003.
The issue of the removal of the bodies from the battlefield is central to the inquiry because it was a very unusual event that caused confusion and could be a potential explanation for why the circumstances of the deaths came to be disputed.
Pressed to explain why and how the bodies were taken to the camp, Griffiths told the inquiry the order had come from higher up the chain of command. He said he had never received such an order before or since.
"We just did it because there must have been a reason for it," he said, adding that he had not been told at the time the reason for the order by the officer who relayed it to him.
"I would have said 'why' and he would have said 'just get on with it'," Griffiths said.
The military evidence is scheduled to last until early next year and the report from the inquiry is expected in late 2014.
The inquiry has no power to prosecute. However, depending on what it concludes, the Service Prosecuting Authority which is in charge of military justice could decide to launch prosecutions.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)