British soldiers filmed beating-up Iraqi rioters minutes after a mortar attack inside their camp are to escape prosecution.
Army prosecutors have decided there is not enough evidence and it would not be in the public interest to charge the nine men, whose actions sparked anger in the Arab world after part of a video taken by a British soldier was shown on the BBC and picked-up by TV channels in the Middle East.
Investigators said they uncovered sufficient evidence to bring charges against two soldiers but they escaped on a technicality because the incident was more than six months old.
Two soldiers may still face military discipline after video showed an alleged kick to the body of a dead Iraqi civilian.
The decision not to bring charges before a court martial follows an outcry over the "hounding" of British servicemen in Iraq by investigators amid claims prosecutions were being driven by political correctness and endangering the effectiveness of troops on dangerous operations abroad.
Last night it was hailed as a "victory for commonsense" by one of the lawyers for the soldiers at the centre of the hugely sensitive inquiry.
Christopher Hill, a specialist in military law, who represented Corporal Martin Webster, 30, the man accused of taking the video, said : "I think the government is becoming worried about public concern over soldiers being prosecuted for doing their duty in situation of extreme provocation and danger.
"This was a cast iron case of what the public does not like - I think they would have been outraged if it had proceeded and the full facts had been known."
Broadcast last February as the fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal raged, the video appeared to show four Iraqi civilians being snatched from a rioting mob and dragged into a military compound in the hotbed town of Al Amarah, north of Iraq's second city Basra, where they were assaulted.
The video contained foulmouthed commentary that was alleged to encourage the beating with Iraqis pleading for mercy as a soldier said : "Oh yes! Oh yes! You're going to get it. Naughty little boys. You little ****ers.....die. Ha Ha."
Within days, three soldiers of the 1st Battalion The Light Infantry were arrested at their base Paderborn, Germany, and questioned by the Royal Military Police while soldiers in Iraq faced the backlash with more than 1,000 demonstrators marching on the British consulate in Basra.
Iraqi politicans in the south of the country announced they were boycotting all co-operation with British forces as the Al Jazeera satellite news channel broadcast footage of the beatings repeatedly, claiming such abuses were widespread.
The Saudi Gazette, an English language paper, editorialised : "No one, especially in the Arab world, seriously believes for a nanosecond that the only time abuses of Iraqis by British troops takes place is when it is captured on film."
Government legal sources said that one of the most alarming features of the video, which had been passed initially to the News of the World, was the apparent indifference to the beatings shown by other soldiers passing by at the time.
Investigators said that the full footage taken in April 2004 showed immediately before the alleged assaults, the soldiers being confronted by mortars and a rioting mob.
Nine members of the Light Infantry were questioned together with senior officers, who had been decorated for their operations in Iraq.
The Army Prosecuting Authority said yesterday it did not believe there was enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction or that a prosecution was in the public interest.
It follows the outcry over the collapse of trials last year at a cost of more than £10 million to taxpayers. They had involved paratroopers and guardsmen accused of abuses.
However, the APA said there was evidence to support charges of assault by battery against two soldiers but battery charges are subject to a six-month time limit, which would have expired in October 2004 - almost 18-months before military authorities became aware of the incident.
The belief was that without evidence of physical injury, no British jury would have convicted given the circumstances in Al Almarah and what the soldiers had endured.
The APA said they had referred the case of two soldiers who are said to have mistreated the body of a dead Iraqi civilian back to the Regiment's commanding officer.
They concluded that while there was evidence with a "realistic prospect of connviction", charges were not in the public interest.
Mr Hill, who criticised the length of time it had taken to reach the decision, said : "If anyone had seen the entire video they would be amazed at the restraint shown by British soldiers under severe and life-threatening provocation.
"Not only were they under attack by a mob throwing stones, rocks and other items but they also faced a barrage of grenades and bomb blasts. And still they did not open fire on the crowd. The film is a testament to the courage, discipline and cool-headedness of our troops in an extremely stressful and life-threatening situation."
He continued : "My understanding of the Rules of Engagement that were in force in Al Amarah at the time is that the soldiers would have been perfectly entitled to open fire with their rifles at those throwing the grenades and blast bombvs as their lives and those of Iraqi civilians were in danger.
"These soldiers, and some of them are very young, should be congratulated for their courage and self-restraint in such a life-threatening situation. Several of the Iraqis involved in the riot could legally have been killed. The fact they were not is due to the level headedness of our soldiers.
"This has been a long drawn-out and stressful process for all the soldiers under investigation."
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