A graphic video that appears to show British soldiers brutally beating teenagers in Iraq and mocking their cries for mercy has clouded the British army in controversy.
The video, publicized by the News of the World tabloid, is likely to increase tensions between Iraqis and the British army, which is still reeling from a previous prisoner-abuse scandal in the southern city of Basra.
The British Ministry of Defence launched an investigation after the newspaper published still images from the tape, which shows what looks like eight British soldiers head-butting, kicking, punching and using batons to beat four Iraqis who appear to be in their teens.
As the four young men, three of whom are shoeless, are attacked on the ground, someone the newspaper identifies as a British corporal films the scene from a rooftop and encourages the others. The regiment and unit have not been identified.
"Oh yes! Oh yes! You're gonna get it. Yes, naughty little boys," the person shooting the video is heard to say. "You little [expletive] you little [expletive] Die. Ha Ha."
The controversy comes a year after three British soldiers were jailed and kicked out of the army for abusing three Iraqi civilians in May of 2003. They were nabbed after a lab technician developing a roll of film saw images of the beatings and called police.
There are also parallels with the 1993 Somalia scandal, when members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment serving in the war-torn African country shot two civilians and tortured and killed a 16-year-old. Photographs taken as trophies were later publicized.
The British video, which the newspaper says was filmed in early 2004, begins with a homemade grenade exploding in the army compound as hundreds of Iraq protesters outside the perimeter walls shout abuse.
Youths run toward the compound, then retreat as soldiers in combat fatigues give chase, some carrying batons and riot shields. The sequence then jumps to soldiers dragging four teens gripped in headlocks behind a high wall. One teen is on the ground with his hands tied behind his back and squirming as soldiers kick him repeatedly. He appears to be lying in a pool of blood around his head.
Another teenager appears to be kicked in the genitals. One of the teenagers can be heard screaming: "No! Please!" at which point the cameraman mimics their accents and repeats their cries.
"No, pleeeze don't hurt me," he says mockingly.
There's also a shot of what appears to be a corpse being kicked in the head twice.
According to the newspaper, someone saw the video and came forward to prevent further brutality.
"These Iraqis were just kids," the unidentified whistleblower told the newspaper.
"Most haven't even got shoes on. These eight soldiers were pumped up and out of control."
The military is now "urgently investigating," a defence ministry spokesman said.
Authorities will interview witnesses and speak to alleged victims before writing a report for the army prosecution authorities, which could take six months, the spokesman said. "We are aware of these very serious allegations," he said.
"We condemn all acts of abuse and brutality and always treat allegations of wrongdoing extremely seriously."
The allegations will be investigated "very fully indeed," Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
A sequence of the tape has been played across the Arab world all day, provoking outrage at a time when many Muslims are angry about the publication of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Radical Muslim groups seized on the video as evidence of the occupation forces' mistreatment of Iraqis. "This is good proof of the violation of human rights by British troops in Basra," said Akil al-Bahadily, an official in Iraq working for the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi military representatives will take the matter up with their British counterparts stationed in Iraq, an Iraqi Defence Ministry adviser told al-Arabiya television.
"It is important to take into consideration the rights of Iraqi citizens and the task assigned to the multinational forces, which is maintaining security and order in the city and not assaulting people," Muhammed al-Askari said.