OUTRAGE: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, right, speaks alongside colleague Kristin Hrafnsson about the release of secret documents about the Iraq war in London at the weekend. Picture: REUTERS

BRITAIN said yesterday that the allegations against US-led forces for previously unreported civilian deaths and ignoring torture carried out by Iraqi forces, contained in "leaked" military documents on whistle- blower website WikiLeaks, were "extraordinarily serious".

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told BBC television people were waiting for an official response to the "shocking" allegations published by Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, against US and coalition troops.

The US had expected WikiLeaks.org to publish on Friday the 400000 classified military documents on the war in Iraq, and had sought unsuccessfully to stop the process and warned it posed a threat to national security.

"We can bemoan how these leaks occurred but I think the nature of the allegations made are extraordinarily serious. They are distressing to read about and they're very serious," Mr Clegg said. "I'm assuming the US administration will want to provide its own answer. It's not for us to tell them how to do that."

At a press conference in London on Friday Mr Assange defended the public's right to full disclosure about the war in Iraq.

The focus of outrage at the weekend was documents showing abuse of prisoners by the Iraqi security forces that US forces knew about but were ordered not to stop. The military said on Saturday it had acted, but only after the fact.

The documents also show 15000 previously unreported civilian deaths, according to Iraq Body Count, a group that tracks civilians killed in the conflict.

The documents, which include military field reports from 2004 to last year, mostly confirm what many experts and analysts already knew about the war in Iraq. Human rights groups and the US state department's annual human rights report had also documented widespread extrajudicial killings committed with "virtual impunity".

Ilan Berman, vice-president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, yesterday said details of Iranian involvement in Iraq showed the government may be unable to provide the security needed for the US to leave. The revelations contradict claims by the Obama administration that the country is prepared for the US military to leave at the end of next year.

"We've staked our claim for withdrawal on the Iraqi security forces being capable of standing up as we stand down," Mr Berman said. "We really need to impose" better governance first.

US President Barack Obama is counting on calmer conditions and the creation of a stable coalition government - Iraq has not had a full government for eight months - to ease the way for the remaining 50000 US troops to leave next year, as called for in a security agreement with Iraq. The state department is slated to take over the task of helping the Iraqi government strengthen its institutions, including the police.

The documents showed that Iran has spent years trying to destabilise the US-supported Iraqi government by training and providing weapons to Iraqi Shiite militias. US officials as far back as 2004 asserted that Iran was interfering in Iraq.

"This seems to prove a degree of involvement by Iran that many, including myself I must say, thought had been exaggerated by the administration," said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr Berman said Iran, which fought an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, is "working to keep Iraq weak and fragmented".

While the release of the documents is not likely to change the US plans to withdraw from Iraq, it may affect the internal politics there, said David Bender, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki is vying with former premier Ayad Allawi to form a coalition government after March 7 parliamentary elections left no one with enough support to govern alone.

The reports in the documents that US forces killed civilians could force Mr Maliki to demand that US troops pull out entirely next year, rather than retaining a small force to promote stability, as officials had expected, Mr Bender said.

Former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who negotiated the agreement for the military exit, said Mr Maliki told him at the time that the government would probably ask for an extension to keep American soldiers there longer. The US military now mostly provides advice and assistance to its Iraqi counterparts.

Retired Maj-Gen Paul Eaton, who commanded the training of Iraqi military forces in 2003- 04, said the documents about Iraqi violence against their own countrymen might aid in national reconciliation. They may reflect on the depictions of Iraqi-on- Iraqi killings and torture and say: "'We have looked into the abyss - how do we avoid it?'" he said.

WikiLeaks previously released a similar batch of field reports from Afghanistan, and Mr Assange said on Friday WikiLeaks will release further documents on that conflict. Sapa-AFP, Bloomberg

We can bemoan how these leaks occurred but the nature of the allegations are extraordinarily serious . distressing to read about