BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi court Sunday cleared two Iraqis accused of killing six British soldiers who were attacked by a mob during a protest in southern Iraq in 2003, saying there was not enough evidence to convict the men.
Hamza Hutayir Mohammed, 33, and Mousa Ismael Haider, 39, had been charged in the deaths of six Royal Military Police soldiers in the town of Majjar, where residents stormed a police station during a protest against intrusive weapons searches in homes.
“We didn’t find enough evidence,” the judge, Baligh Hamdi, said after hearing from witnesses and dismissing the charges. “Our ruling was built on what we found from the evidence.”
Residents of the Shi’ite town said troops provoked the violence by conducting weapons searches in violation of a deal with local leaders.
A 2006 inquest in Britain heard that the soldiers, members of a unit known as the “Red Caps,” died after being beaten and repeatedly shot at close range following the attack on the police station in June 2003.
London had sent 46,000 troops to the Gulf for the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in April 2003. British forces ended up controlling the south, including oil-rich Basra province and rural Maysan province, where the six troops died.
The attack by an angry mob two months after Saddam’s fall was seen as a pivotal incident, showing the mounting hostility of the Iraqi public to the U.S.-British occupation, which would lead to the eruption of a full-blown insurgency.
The Iraqi court’s ruling can be appealed.
“Thank God, I’m so happy now,” said Haider, shaking his fists in victory outside the courtroom. “I’m glad for the justice of the Iraqi judiciary. It was unfair to accuse me of such a crime.”
His lawyer, Abbas Mahdi, called it a just verdict based on evidence.
“If there was any evidence to convict them, I would not have defended them,” he said.
The British Ministry of Defense said the case was not over, with Iraqi authorities actively pursuing seven arrest warrants.
“We know that the families of the victims will be very disappointed and our thoughts remain with them, but we have no choice but to respect the decision of the Iraqi judges,” the ministry said in a statement.
Editing by Jim Loney and Peter Graff