LONDON // A British government inquiry set up last year to investigate claims by Iraqis that they had been abused by UK troops after the 2003 invasion has ground to a standstill, it was revealed yesterday.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) was established to resolve abuse claims by more than 140 Iraqis. But almost eight months after it was created, it has interviewed just one person.
"It's been a complete and utter shambles," said Phil Shiner, a lawyer from the group Public Interest Lawyers, which is representing the Iraqis. "It must have cost the [UK] taxpayer millions."
Mr Shiner told the BBC that members of the 83-member Ihat team, which has a two-year budget of £7.5 million (Dh45.1m), had been "grossly incompetent".
The first attempt to take statements was made in Lebanon but came to an abrupt halt when government authorities in Beirut asked investigators to leave.
A second attempt was made in Turkey to interview a 72-year-old Iraqi elder, who claims British troops dragged him in front of 32 family members with his genitals exposed.
But he went home after refusing to take part in further questioning after Ihat members suggested that the soldiers had used "proportionate force" when he refused to cooperate with them, according to Mr Shiner.
"It was a multiple of serious errors they made. They clearly haven't been trained," Mr Shiner said.
The Iraqis are classified by the law as "vulnerable and intimidated witnesses" but Mr Shiner said that Ihat failed to follow the guidelines for interviewing such people - a claim that Ihat strenuously denies.
On Mr Shiner's advice, the Iraqis are now refusing to co-operate further with the inquiry. "I have a duty to them. I could not advise them, some of whom have been raped, that they should go through this," he said.
Mr Shiner, who has long been calling for a full public inquiry into the abuse claims rather than the Ihat investigation, denied suggestions that he was trying to undermine the efforts of the inquiry team.
Next month, judges at the Court of Appeal in London will hear a bid by Public Interest Lawyers for just such a public inquiry.
Until the outcome of that hearing, which is an appeal by Mr Shiner's group of a High Court decision that Ihat was an "appropriate" body to investigate the abuse claims, no further attempts to interview the alleged victims will be possible.
Geoff White, a retired police officer who heads the Ihat inquiry team, said in a statement: "Our aim is to get to the bottom of what is alleged to have occurred with a view to deciding if there is sufficient evidence to refer cases for potential prosecution.
"I simply do not accept that the difficulties we now face stem from failings on the part of Ihat.
"We have taken advice from an experienced Queen's Counsel [senior lawyer] and his conclusion is that there was no reasonable basis for Public Interest Lawyers' decision to advise complainants to withdraw from the interviews."
There has already been one public inquiry into allegations of abuse by UK forces in Iraq. A report from that inquiry, which centred on the death in British army custody of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel worker in Basra who sustained 93 separate injuries, will be published in September.
Adrian Weale, a spokesman for the British Armed Forces Federation, told the BBC that he believed the work of Ihat had become a waste of time.
"The people making these accusations have to put up or shut up," he said. "It's almost impossible to imagine that justice can be done after this amount of time has passed."