BRITAIN is facing an examination by the International Criminal Court over allegations that UK forces in Iraq were responsible for the "systematic abuse" of detainees.

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she was staging a "preliminary examination" - the first step towards a formal inquiry - after receiving a dossier from a British law firm representing a number of detainees.

The Government indicated that it would co-operate with the inquiry by the court in The Hague - set up to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity - while insisting it "completely rejects" the allegations.

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Officials expressed confidence that the prosecutor would not move to a full investigation as UK authorities were conducting their own inquiries but they acknowledged that the case could hang over the country for years as the prosecutor's office satisfied itself the matter was being dealt with properly.

A preliminary examination was concluded in 2006, but the Public Interest Lawyers and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights submitted fresh information this year.