File photo: British soldiers check Iraqis on the outskirts of Basra in 2003. (AP)
British soldiers accused of unlawful killing and torture during the Iraq War could face prosecution, the head of an official unit probing alleged abuses said in an interview published Saturday.
Former police detective Mark Warwick, who is now leading the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) set up by the Ministry of Defence, told The Independent newspaper he believed his team had gathered enough evidence to justify charges.
"There are serious allegations that we are investigating across the whole range of probe investigations, which incorporates homicide, where I feel there is significant evidence to be obtained to put a strong case before the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA) to prosecute and charge," he said.
The SPA considers criminal cases within the armed services.
"There are lots of significant cases that we are investigating and at the appropriate time it will be a matter for us to discuss with the SPA whether they meet the war crimes threshold," he added.
The Ministry of Defence said it was taking the claims "extremely seriously", but added that "the vast majority of UK service personnel deployed on military operations conduct themselves professionally and in accordance with the law."
The inquiry has heard evidence of at least 1,514 possible victims, 280 of whom are alleged to have been unlawfully killed.
However, Warwick warned that it may take until beyond 2019, when the unit's funding is due to end, to work through all the claims and bring prosecutions.
One of its most high-profile investigations is into the death of Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, who was beaten after while held in custody by British soldiers in 2003.
Warwick said the case remained "a live criminal investigation".
Human rights campaigners however criticised the unit for lengthy probes with no prosecutions having materialised so far.
"The incredibly slow pace... is wholly unacceptable," Carla Ferstman, director of the human rights charity Redress, told the newspaper.
"Things seem to still be moving at a snail's pace. This cannot be a whitewash."
A British inquiry set up to probe allegations of atrocities carried out by troops during a firefight near the town of Majar al-Kabir, southwest Iraq, in 2004 cleared them of the most serious claims but found they had mistreated nine detainees.
It was the second public inquiry into allegations of abuse by British soldiers in Iraq, following one that concluded in 2011 which examined the death of Baha Mousa.
That inquiry found that Mousa was hooded, assaulted and held in stress positions along with nine other Iraqis following their detention by 1st Battalion the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in September 2003.