A blunder by British forces in Iraq allowed al Qaida’s top commander in the country to escape, according to secret war logs controversially leaked into the public domain.
An operation to capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian associate of Osama bin Laden, collapsed in March 2005 when a British helicopter ordered to monitor him ran out of fuel and had to return to base, the logs revealed by WikiLeaks suggest.
Today’s Observer newspaper, which reported the alleged incident, said the mistake probably allowed Zarqawi an extra 15 months to expand al Qaida’s operations throughout Iraq, bringing the country close to civil war.
His fundamentalist Sunni supporters were behind some of the worst atrocities aimed at Iraq’s Shia majority population as well as countless attacks on US and Iraqi government forces.
Their bombing of a sacred golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra in February 2006 led to a wave of revenge killings that lasted for a year and a half, the newspaper reported.
He was eventually located by the Americans in a house north of Baghdad in June 2006 and killed with his family by a US air strike.
The logs report that on March 17 2005 the G3 cell of army intelligence at British brigade headquarters in Basra heard that Zarqawi was travelling south on route 6 from Amara to Basra.
At 2.45pm, the report says, a Lynx helicopter spotted a suspicious car that had stopped nine miles south of Qurna and about 60 miles north of Basra.
The report says the helicopter maintained “top cover” for 15 minutes but then had to return to the British-run Shaiba logistics base to refuel.
British special forces and an American “arresting officer” were brought in, but having lost their helicopter cover the forces were reduced to random searching.
Unlike many other reports in the logs, this one makes no comment on the the source of the intelligence and its reliability, The Observer notes.
But if Zarqawi was in the suspicious car, the near-miss was “hugely expensive”, the newspaper adds.
The revelation comes as controversy continued over the publication of the documents by whistleblowing group WikiLeaks.
The group posted nearly 400,000 leaked classified reports on the internet which contain accounts of abuse and misconduct by Iraqi authorities and US forces. There are also some allegations of abuse by UK soldiers, the website said.
The reports relate to 109,000 deaths – including 66,000 civilians, of which 15,000 were previously undocumented, it claimed.
WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange told a news conference in central London: “This disclosure is about the truth.
“We hope to correct some of that attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war, and which has continued on since the war officially concluded.”
Britain's Ministry of Defence said the website had been reckless and was putting the lives of British military personnel in danger.
A spokesman said: “We condemn any un-authorised release of classified material.
“This can put the lives of UK service personnel and those of our allies at risk and make the job of Armed Forces in all theatres of operation more difficult and more dangerous.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate on the specific detail of these documents without further investigation while the Iraq Inquiry is ongoing.
“There is no place for mistreatment of detainees and we investigate any allegation made against our troops.”
The archive comes after 90,000 files chronicling civilian deaths and other incidents in Afghanistan were published by the site in July. A further 15,000 documents, which had been held back because of their sensitive content, will be released shortly, it said.
According to the WikiLeaks website, the Iraq logs detail how US authorities allegedly failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers.
There are “numerous” reports of detainee abuse, describing prisoners being shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks with six ending with a detainee’s apparent death, the Guardian newspaper reported.