A Baghdad court on Sunday cleared two Iraqi men accused of taking part in the 2003 mob slaying of six British soldiers in southern Iraq, saying there was no eyewitnesses to link the men to the killings.
The case has been closely followed by the British military and veteran groups as a critical test of whether anyone will be held accountable for the slayings, which stunned Britain as one of the first major signs of civilian backlash to the military forces that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Chief Justice Baleagh Hamdi Hikmat dropped the charges against Moussa Ismael Haider, 39, and Hamza Hutaer Mohammed, 33, after no firsthand testimony on the slayings was presented in Baghdad's Central Criminal Court.
A statement by Britain's Ministry of Defense said it has "no choice but to respect the decision of the Iraqi judges." It added, however, that seven other arrest warrants remain outstanding in the case and they are "being actively pursued by the Iraqi authorities."
But families of the British soldiers killed were disappointed.
"Quite honestly these people just haven't been in court long enough to be able to prove their innocence, which obviously asks the question why did the judge decide to bring it to court then dismiss it so quickly?" John Hyde, whose son Lance Corporal Benjamin Hyde was among those killed, told Britain's Sky News.
The slayings have been the subject of several high-level British military inquests that included interviews with Iraqi civilians, who said anger at the time was rising over British weapons searches that went against Muslim customs by using dogs and entering women's bedrooms.
But some of nine people giving testimony in the trial _ mostly Iraqi policemen _ said the mob retaliated after the reported killing of civilians by a British patrol in a nearby market in southern Iraq, a mostly Shiite region that was generally calm in the months following the collapse of Saddam's regime.
The British military has also said the soldiers, who were assigned to help train local police, were short on ammunition and had substandard radios to try to call for help.
During the two-hour trial, the three-judge panel repeatedly asked if anyone could identify the defendants as among the group that killed the Royal Military Police officers _ known as Red Caps _ in Majar al-Kabir, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) north of Basra.
Kadhum Muhsin Hamadi, who was the head of the local council at the time, told the court that he urged the soldiers to flee as a mob approached with "some of them masked and holding many kinds of weapons."
"I asked them (British soldiers) to leave, but they refused, saying they had no orders to do so," Hamadi testified. "Then I left them alive when I fled from the rear window to my home. I didn't see the killings."
One of those questioned, however, said he saw the defendant Mohammed carrying a weapon of a dead British soldier. The court said it will pursue charges on the theft, but the case in the slayings was dropped.
Eight Iraqis were arrested earlier this year in connection with the slayings, but charges were dropped against all but the two men.
"I can't describe my happiness," said defendant Haider as he shook hands and exchanged kisses with friends after the court decision. "I'm ending my ordeal. I'm innocent."
The two defendants _ who were in court wearing brown prison overalls _ were prosecuted under Iraq's criminal law because the terrorism law that covers most attacks on foreign and Iraqi forces did not exist when the attack occurred in June 2003.
The soldiers had been assigned to train local police in the months after Saddam's fall. British probes later found that the soldiers had been given inadequate radio communications and each carried 50 rounds of ammunition instead of the recommended 150 rounds.
Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced questions in parliament about the slayings, which were used by opponents of the war to demand an accelerated withdrawal of British forces.
Britain was the second-largest military contingent in the U.S.-led invasion and once had 46,000 troops in Iraq. Last year, British forces formally handed over control of their last outposts to the Iraqi military. At least 179 British personnel were killed in Iraq.
"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," said the statement from the British Ministry of Defense.
Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui contributed to this report from London.