LONDON (Reuters) - British soldiers beat to death an Iraqi civilian in an act of unjustified violence that left a "very great stain" on Britain's armed forces, an inquiry concluded on Thursday.
Former judge William Gage, who led the three-year investigation, said senior officers should have done more to prevent the 2003 death of hotel worker Baha Mousa and attacks by British troops on nine other detainees in Iraq.
The inquiry blamed a "corporate failure" at the Defence Ministry for letting soldiers use methods banned by parliament in 1972, including the hooding of prisoners, forcing them to stand in stressful positions and depriving them of sleep.
Mousa, 26, was repeatedly kicked and punched over a 36-hour period while being held in a squalid detention block on a British military base in the southern city of Basra.
Hooded and handcuffed in the fierce heat, the father-of-two suffered 93 visible injuries, including a broken nose, broken ribs and bruising all over his body, the inquiry found.
Britain was the main ally of the United States in the invasion that toppled Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, particularly at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail, drew protests from around the world.
One British soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, boasted to colleagues of conducting a "choir" by beating Mousa and other prisoners so that they cried out in sequence, the inquiry heard. Another soldier said that on the morning after their arrest the detainees looked as if they had been in a car crash.
"The events ... were indeed a very great stain on the reputation of the army," Gage said in a statement. "They constituted an appalling episode of serious, gratuitous violence on civilians."
Prime Minister David Cameron said the violence was "shocking and appalling" and must never happen again.
"If there is further evidence that comes out of this inquiry that enables further action to be taken, it should be taken," he said. "Britain does not cover these things up, we do not sweep them under the carpet. We deal with them."
Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the report, which made 73 recommendations, highlighted "deplorable, shocking and shameful" events, but was not typical of the rest of the army.
The inquiry found no evidence of a culture of violence among the British forces in Basra. However, it criticised the then head of the First Battalion of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Mendonca.
"As commanding officer, he ought to have known what was going on in that building long before Baha Mousa died," Gage said, adding that Mendonca bore a "heavy responsibility."
Mousa was arrested at a hotel in Basra by British soldiers searching for weapons and insurgents on Sunday, September 14, 2003. The inquiry said it was highly unlikely the men were insurgents.
Mousa and nine others were taken to a British army base where their hands were tied and sandbags placed over their heads. They were forced to hold "stress positions" for hours at a time and were kept awake to prepare them for interrogation.
One prisoner told how a liquid was poured over his head, petrol rubbed under his nose and a lighter held near his face, apparently to make him think he would be set alight. Another said detainees were forced to "dance like Michael Jackson."
The inquiry found that the attacks on the men started soon after they arrived at the base and intensified in the evening of their arrest, in what Gage described as a "free for all."
Mousa died on Monday night after a final violent struggle with his guards in a small, disused toilet.
Gage rejected the soldiers' defence that Mousa had tried to escape and said Corporal Payne beat him after losing his temper. Payne is the only soldier to have been convicted over the death, receiving a one-year term for inhumane treatment.
A lawyer for Mousa's family said prosecutors should re-examine the evidence against the British soldiers.
"We now expect the military and civilian prosecuting authorities of this country will act to ensure justice is done," said Sapna Malik, of London law firm Leigh Day.
The head of the British army, General Sir Peter Wall, chief of the general staff, said Mousa's death had cast a "dark shadow" over the UK forces' reputation.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)