The British government was warned by Red Cross officials in February that coalition troops were abusing and even killing Iraqi captives, it emerged last night.
Downing Street has been dragged into the deepening crisis after admitting ministers were shown a copy of the Red Cross report detailing abuses so that action could be taken.
The revelation prompted immediate opposition demands that Tony Blair explain what he and senior government colleagues knew and what steps they took to stop the abuse of captives.
Last night, there was further severe embarrassment for the British military after it emerged a second regiment was apparently involved in the mistreatment of prisoners and that soldiers could face prosecution for sexual assault.
It was reported that as many as three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers were under investigation by military police after officers were shown photographs of Iraqi captives being forced to commit homosexual acts.
And in another development, the Ministry of Defence admitted that British military personnel were stationed at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of the most sadistic abuses by US soldiers, for several months earlier this year.
It has already been suggested that much of the degrading treatment meted out to Iraqis was devised by the British as an interrogation tool.
The news that UK troops were based at Abu Ghraib raises further disturbing questions about what the British military knew of the abuse going on there. A Downing Street spokesman last night confirmed that the Red Cross drew their attention to allegations of abuse earlier in the year.
The spokesman said: "The International Committee of the Red Cross showed the government a copy of the report in February to enable the government to comment and take action on this."
He said the Red Cross informed the government because parts of the report concerned areas of British responsibility. He refused to reveal what action was taken.
A leaked copy of the report, confirmed as genuine by the agency, described prisoners kept naked in total darkness in empty cells at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison - under US-control - and male prisoners forced to parade around in women’s underwear. Coalition forces also fired on unarmed prisoners from watchtowers, killing some of them. In another episode, nine men were arrested in Basra and beaten severely, leading to one death, it added.
New claims of abuse perpetrated by British soldiers continue to emerge. The alleged incidents involving the Fusiliers are said to have come to light when a soldier deposited his film following his return from Iraq. It is not known whether the man was responsible for taking the photographs.