Lawyers for 12 Iraqi families who say their relatives were killed unlawfully by British troops won the right Tuesday to pursue their cases in Britain's High Court, as Prime Minister Tony Blair's government sought to fend off new allegations of human rights abuses in Iraq.
A High Court judge granted the families a full-court hearing into their claim that the soldiers' actions should be subject to British law and the European Convention on Human Rights. One of the lawyers said he hoped to add another half-dozen claims of wrongful death to the cases.
"The way things are going in Iraq, it seems to me it is in everyone's interest that this point should be decided as soon as possible," Justice Andrew Collins said in granting the hearing, according to media accounts.
Government lawyers did not oppose the families' petition but have said that soldiers should be judged under the rules of war. Virtually all of the cases are under investigation by military police, according to a government spokesman.
An attorney representing one family, Phil Shiner, said at Tuesday's hearing that many of the victims were civilians going about normal life when they were killed. One man had been doing farm work, while another was returning home in his car.
Shiner said that because British troops had assumed occupying powers in southern Iraq after President Saddam Hussein was overthrown last year, they should be held accountable in the same manner they would be in Britain.
The ruling came as government officials responded to a new report by Amnesty International that accused soldiers of killing civilians -- including a child -- without justification. The London-based human rights organization said the British army had failed to fully investigate the killings, and that the investigations it did carry out had been "shrouded in secrecy." The army's response, it concluded, "has undermined, rather than upheld, the rule of law."
The Amnesty report focused on nine cases in southern Iraq, including that of 8-year-old Hanan Saleh Matrud, who was shot dead near her home last Aug. 23. The army said she was killed accidentally by a stray warning shot fired during a stone-throwing incident. But witnesses said there was no unrest at the time.
Blair's official spokesman, who under the government's ground rules cannot be named, told reporters that the Defense Ministry was aware of all the cases raised by Amnesty and that all had been or were being investigated.
But the spokesman pointed out that British troops, who were in charge of peacekeeping in southern Iraq, were operating in difficult circumstances. He noted that last weekend alone, soldiers had faced more than 100 engagements against insurgents loyal to militant Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
"We're talking about Dodge City, with no police force in the aftermath of a major war, with about 16 different armed groups going round shooting Iraqis," Col. John Hughes-Wilson, a former British intelligence officer, told BBC Radio. "If you're a soldier on the ground there, it must be absolutely terrifying."
Blair and his cabinet have faced a new wave of criticism following allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers that echo charges made against U.S. troops, although on a much lesser scale. The government has pledged to investigate every allegation.