More than five years after the US military denied claims that its troops had executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians in cold blood, new evidence has emerged in a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable casting serious doubt on the US version of events.
A UN complaint contained in the latest batch of cables published by the whistle-blowing organisation suggests that in 2006 US troops killed at least 10 civilians, including five children and an elderly woman, in the central town of Ishaqi before ordering an air strike which destroyed the house where the alleged killings took place.
The incident is raised in a letter from Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Mr Alston's letter to US officials, which went unanswered, challenges the American military version of events. It says that autopsies carried out in the nearby city of Tikrit showed the victims had been handcuffed and shot in the head. They included a woman in her 70s and a five-month-old.
The US military had said that the troops seized an al-Qa'ida suspect from a first floor room after fierce fighting left the house in ruins. US officials originally said five people had been killed, although they later accepted a higher toll of 11.
The leaked cable has been highlighted by the US-based McClatchy newspaper chain. Its reporters in Iraq at the time interviewed neighbours and Iraqi security officials, who gave similar accounts to those contained in Mr Alston's letter but which the US military insisted were unlikely to be true.
Mr Alston sent a series of questions about the incident to the US embassy in Geneva, which passed them on to Washington. Although the US military announced an investigation into the incident, no known action was taken.
Asked whether he had elicited any more information about what happened, Mr Alston told The Independent: "[The US] studiously avoided responding to any communications sent to it during this period. The tragedy is that this elaborate system of communications is in place but the [UN] Human Rights Council does nothing to follow-up when states ignore issues raised with them."
The incident, in March 2006, occurred when large tracts of countryside were judged to be in the control of Sunni insurgents, many affiliated to al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Neighbours told the McClatchy reporters that troops had approached the house of a farmer, Faiz Harrat al-Majma'ee, at about 2.30am. There had been a 25-minute firefight, with someone apparently firing from the house, before the troops entered the building. The troops were backed up by helicopter gunships, they said.
Mr Alston's concerns reflect those in the original report by Iraqi security officials at the local Joint Coordination Centre. Its report said: "The American forces gathered the family members in one room and executed 11 persons, including five children, four women and two men. Then they bombed the house, burned three vehicles and killed their animals."
In his letter, Mr Alston – who names 10 victims –says "Iraqi TV stations broadcast from the scene and showed bodies of the victims (i.e. five children and four women) in the morgue of Tikrit". He adds that autopsies revealed that all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed. There is no mention in the cable of any of the alleged shooting suspects being found or arrested at or near the house.
McClatchy said the Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.