LONDON (Reuters) - British soldiers may be put on trial for alleged crimes committed in Iraq including murder, the head of a government unit investigating claims of torture and unlawful killing said in an interview published on Saturday.
Mark Warwick, a former police detective who is in charge of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat), was quoted as saying by The Independent newspaper that he believed there would be sufficient evidence to justify criminal charges.
"There are serious allegations that we are investigating across the whole range of Ihat investigations, which incorporates homicide, where I feel there is significant evidence to be obtained to put a strong case before the Service Prosecuting Authority to prosecute and charge," he said.
Ihat, which was set up by Ministry of Defence in 2010 and is independent of the military for its investigations, has received cases relating to more than 1,500 alleged victims of mistreatment and unlawful killings, according to the British government's website.
It is due to complete its investigations by the end of 2019, more than 10 years after Britain withdrew its last combat troops from Iraq following its participation in the U.S-led invasion in 2003.
The process has not yet resulted in any recommendations for a prosecution and it has been criticized by rights campaigners for moving too slowly. Warwick appealed for patience.
"I think people need to understand the complexity, the volume and the geography aspects of this, and you can't underestimate putting those three factors together and trying to conduct ethical investigations," he told The Independent.
"Over the next 12 to 18 months, we will review all the caseload to better understand the picture and then I think we can say whether 2019 seems realistic," Warwick said.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said it took all allegations of abuse or unlawful killing extremely seriously.
"The vast majority of UK service personnel deployed on military operations conduct themselves professionally and in accordance with the law," she said. "Where there is sufficient evidence, members of Her Majesty's Forces can be prosecuted."
In 2014, the International Criminal Court in The Hague reopened a preliminary examination of allegations of "systematic detainee abuse" by British troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2008.
A wide-ranging British public inquiry into the Iraq War is likely to be published in mid-2016.
(Writing by William Schomberg; editing by David Clarke)