In June 2003, six members of the Royal Military Police - known as Red Caps - were shot by a mob while on a patrol of police stations in Majar al Kabir, southern Iraq. The killings were regarded as murder and not an act of war by the Iraqi government. Since then the families of the men have campaigned to successive British defence secretaries and Iraqi governments to have those responsible arrested.
A father of one of the solider's killed, John Miller, lived in the same town as me. I was able to build a rapport and get a running update on the campaign. What follows below are some articles I produced for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, including an exclusive on arrest warrants issued in Iraq for eight suspects.
by Paul McMillan, The Evening Chronicle, December 19, 2005
Relatives of North East soliders killed in Iraq have spoken of their frustration at the lengthy wait for inquests into the deaths of loved ones.
Since 2003, 98 have lost their lives, with 70 inquests still outstanding, according to a Parliamentary answer.Because the bodies of servicemen are flown to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, the inquests are undertaken by the local coroner.
Last year, 22 British military personnel lost their lives in Iraq with 15 inquests outstanding. All inquests into the 23 who died this year are outstanding.
John Miller, of Washington, whose son Simon, 21, was one of six military policeman killed when a police station was stormed in Al Majar in June 2003, has to wait until next March for the inquest.
He said: "We went to war on a lie and when we sent the troops we did not send anybody behind them like doctors or nurses to look after them.
"This to me all ties in with the fact every soldier killed in Iraq comes back through Brize Norton and so comes under the coroner for Oxford.
"How can one man be responsible for every British solider that is killed?"
Mr Miller also criticised the resources given to the Oxford coroner, which he says amounted to 100,000, next to the 10m spent on the aborted court martial of seven paratroopers for allegedly killing an Iraqi.
He added: "Our lives are ruined. We just live an existence, it's an awful thing to say but the only thing we can look forward to is the next step and that's the coroner's inquest."
Anthony Wakefield, 24, of Walker, Newcastle, was killed in a roadside blast when his vehicle was hit in Basra last May.
His brother Paul said: "Families deserve to have it all done and dusted to give the relatives peace without having things like that hanging over their heads."That makes it harder for everybody."
A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said inquest handling was a matter for coroners.
The Oxford coroner's office could not immediately be contacted for comment.
by Paul McMillan, The Evening Chronicle, March 16, 2006 Relatives of a North East Red Cap have heard harrowing details of how he was killed after being set on by an Iraqi mob.
Corporal Simon Miller was one of six Royal Military Policemen to die at the hands of a mob at a police station in the southern Iraqi city of Al Majar Al Kabir in June, 2003.
An inquest in Oxfordshire heard the 21-year-old from Washington had a black eye from being punched, bruises to his chest where he is thought to have been hit with a rifle butt, and grazes on his back suggesting he had been dragged.
Home Office pathologist Dr Nicholas Hunt also said Cpl Miller had suffered a single, fatal gunshot wound to his face and two or three wounds in his chest.
John Miller, Cpl Miller's father, has said he has seen evidence to suggest that Dr Hunt used pictures of his son, together with two others in the patrol, in a seminar explaining how to set up makeshift morgues in disaster areas.
It is alleged he used the slides as part of a seminar in February, 2004 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, attended by travel agents, council officials and public service workers.
Mr Miller said he found out about the slide show after asking the MoD to send him copies of every Army-related document featuring his son's name.
He said among the material he received were three emails and a letter circulated between the MoD and the Oxfordshire coroner.
In the slides displayed, the three fallen Red Caps' bodies were naked save for strips obscuring genitals and faces.
But an attempt by the families' solicitor John MacKenzie to establish the facts surrounding the episode was blocked by the coroner.
A later attempt by another relative to seek an apology from Dr Hunt was met with a curt response.Mr MacKenzie asked the pathologist: "During the course of your examination you took photographs, is it correct that you used those photographs?"
But his question was interrupted by corner Nicholas Gardiner, who told him the questions were "quite out of order" at the inquest.
The coroner added: "I am well aware of the problem you have alluded to and it is being dealt with by other means but not in this court. It is simply not a matter appropriate for this court."
The two other bodies Dr Hunt allegedly displayed were understood to be those of Lance Corporal Thomas Keys, 20, from Bala, North Wales and Sergeant Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41, from Surrey.
Reg Keys, the father of Thomas Keys, said he was told by the Ministry of Defence that his son's body was "definitely not viewable".
He added: "Yet the next thing you know pictures of his body are being put up on a slide show."
The inquest was expected to resume today with pathology evidence into the deaths of the remaining two Red Caps, Lance Corporal Benjamin John McGowan Hyde, 23, from Northallerton, North Yorkshire and Corporal Paul Graham Long, 24, originally from South Shields.
The others soldier who died was Corporal Russell Aston, 30, from Swadlincote, Derbyshire.
by Paul McMillan, The Evening Chronicle April 20 2007
Families of six murdered military policemen have made direct pleas to Iraq's Prime Minister and a leading Iraqi politician to help bring their sons' killers to justice.
Corporals Simon Miller, 21, from Washington; Paul Long, 24, originally from South Shields; Russell Ashton, 30; lance corporals Benjamin Hyde, 23, and Tom Keys, 20, and Sergeant Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41, were killed by a mob while touring police stations in southern Iraq, in June 2003.
Now, Simon Miller's father John has written a letter which has been sent directly to Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Malaki and Adil Mahwadar Radi, the governor of the Maysan province where the men were killed.
The letter, appealing for the Iraqi government to act on arrest warrants issued last year, was translated into Arabic by a colleague of Cpl Ashton's father Mike and was also signed by Lance Cpl Keys' father Reg.
It was taken to Iraq by the Ministry of Defence and the men are hopeful it will lead to further developments.
Mr Miller said: "I wrote the letter and sent it down to Derbyshire where Mike works for the county council.
"One of the guys there can speak the language and agreed to translate it into Arabic. It has been signed by the three of us.
"The Ministry of Defence sent it out in the diplomatic bag. They said they thought it was a good idea."
Arrest warrants for eight people thought responsible for leading the attack at the police station in Al Majar al Kabir, were issued in February 2006 but have not yet been acted on.
It emerged this year that pleas for action by the British Government were rejected for fear of stoking up controversy.
The families hope the persuasive tone of their letter may yet result in action by Iraqi authorities.
Mr Miller added: "We are sending it directly to the Iraqi PM and governor of the Maysan province asking them to take action on the warrants."The letter explains the effect the deaths had on the families and that those men were there to help Iraq.
"They were not front-line military, they were police. They were there to help restore law and order.
"I am asking them to arrest the murderers. We live in hope."
Here are extracts from the letter
Dear Minister,We are the parents of three Royal Military Policemen who, along with many thousands of British soldiers, were sent to Iraq on March 20, 2003.
They went voluntarily, risking their lives to free your country of an evil dictator.
They were not in a front line fighting unit. Their roll was to try to restore law and order.
On June 24, 2003, our sons along with three other comrades made a visit to the police station at Majarr Al Kabir to meet the chief of police, interpreter and a civil engineer, to discuss employing local contractors to help refurbish the police station.
What happened was unforgivable and unnecessary. A group of Iraqi gunmen entered the police station intent on murdering the six. From witnesses we are told the six refused to return fire and tried to negotiate with the gunmen.
After that we do not know what happened. What we do know is that the gunmen killed our sons for no reason.
They were so brutally murdered that some of them were not even allowed to be seen by their parents.On February 1, 2006, the Central Court of Iraq issued eight arrest warrants for the murderers.
Those warrants have never been executed, even though the British Government has pressed your Government for this to happen.
We understand the situation, the relentless campaign by certain elements to not to allow your country to regenerate itself and, the horrendous killings of innocent Iraqi people.
But our sons risked their lives to help free your people and paid the ultimate sacrifice.Our sons died in honour not for their own country, but for yours. We beg of you to honour them back and have these brutal murderers arrested.
Yours sincerely, John Miller, Mike Aston, Reg Keys
Exclusive by Paul McMillan and Sonia Sharma, Evening Chronicle, May 4, 2006
Almost three years after two North East Red Caps were massacred in Iraq, arrest warrants have been issued for eight suspects.
Six Royal Military Policeman were murdered nearly three years ago.
Among them were Cpl Simon Miller, 21, from Washington, and Cpl Paul Long, 24, from South Shields, who died with four comrades in a patrol that was killed in Al Majar Al Kabir on June 24, 2003.
Today the Chronicle can reveal investigators have told their families they have identified eight people believed to be involved in the slayings.
With the third anniversary of their deaths just weeks away, families of the six were today meeting Defence Secretary John Reid to be updated on the manhunt.
Cpl Miller’s father John disclosed the warrants had been issued. But Mr Miller, 54, remains sceptical about the suspects ever facing any kind of trial.
He said: “We were informed by Mr Reid that a number of witnesses from Al Majar were called by an investigative judge for examination during a court hearing.
“Every effort was made to protect the anonymity of those witnesses, and they gave evidence from behind a screen. As a result, the judge had issued arrest warrants for eight suspects in the case.
“So the meeting is also supposed to give us a live-link to Baghdad to give us an update on the situation.”
Cpl Long’s mother Pat, 54, from South Shields, said: “We were told arrest warrants had been issued.
“We have not been told who the eight suspects are or heard anything about them. They have told us they are not allowed to reveal anything about the suspects in case it jeopardises the search.
“I truly hope that today we will hear the words we have been waiting to hear for three years. I want John Reid to tell me they have caught my son’s killers and they will never be letting them go.
“But deep down I know this is unlikely.”
Mr Reid was also expected to be grilled about delays in the investigation after his predecessor Geoff Hoon said in June 2004 that the Central Criminal Court of Iraq was taking up the case.
But the families also received a letter from Mr Reid in December stating: “The news that the CCCI has now agreed to take on the case is a very positive development and demonstrates the importance which the Iraqi authorities attach to this case.”
Mr Miller said: “I want to know who at the Ministry of Defence was responsible for holding onto those files for 18 months until assurances were given by the Iraqi authorities that the death penalty would not be imposed on the murderers.”
An inquest into the soldier’s deaths earlier this year found they had been unlawfully killed and were let down by a series of army failures.
The hearings in Oxford revealed the true horror of their deaths.
The six had gathered at an Iraqi police station for a routine meeting and, with time on their hands, started playing football with the locals.
Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell and his men were part of a 25-strong unit attached to the 1 Para Battle Group and were to train 1,100 Iraqi policemen and re-equip police stations after the end of the war.
They had no idea a squad of Paras had been in fire-fights that day and two days earlier with an angry mob enraged by weapon searches in the heavily-armed region.
That, and rumours four locals had been killed in the town’s market square earlier that morning, ignited the 600-strong crowd.
As masked men advanced on the police station, their Iraqi hosts fled through toilet windows into neighbouring streets.
But when the mob came, Sgt Hamilton-Jewell refused to follow, instead ordering his men to take up defensive positions.
Even though two of their armoured Land Rovers were blown up by rocket-propelled grenades and they faced hundreds of men armed with Kalashnikov rifles, none of the six British RMPs are thought to have fired a single shot at the crowd.
The soldiers had little chance of survival. They were carrying just 50 rounds of ammunition each instead of 150. They were unable to call for help because they were not equipped with Iridium satellite phones.
The lack of communication meant they would not have known Paras in their battle group were in the same area.
Three hours later, all six were dead.
During the inquest it became clear there was a series of operational failures and ignored orders in the days leading up to the killings.
Most seriously, the soldiers did not have the telephones despite a direct order from their commanding officer, Col Thomas Beckett, that all units leaving base must carry one.
That was due to supply shortages. Another order by Col Beckett, that each man must carry 150 rounds of ammunition, had also been ignored.
The first Col Beckett knew of their whereabouts was when he was told their bodies were being recovered.
Recording a narrative verdict, coroner Nicholas Gardiner, concluded the three-week hearing by ruling the men had been unlawfully killed.
He said he was bound not to attribute blame for their deaths to any particular parties but would write to the defence secretary with a series of recommendations. The families of the murdered soldiers vowed to fight on for justice.
The others who died were Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41, of Surrey; L-Cpl Ben Hyde, 23, of North Yorkshire; L-Cpl Thomas Keys, 20, of Wales; and Cpl Russell Aston, 30, of Derbyshire.
by Paul McMillan, Newcastle Evening Chronicle, September 3, 2007
NORTH East MPs and relatives of servicemen today welcomed the full withdrawal of British troops from Basra Palace.
A general is quoted as saying UK forces have left the area, but a Ministry of Defence spokesman, based in the city, said: "We're very much in the middle of an ongoing operation at the moment and we don't comment on future or ongoing operations."
British troops began pulling out of Basra last night, the MoD said, in preparation for handing over the city to the Iraqi authorities "in the autumn".
The first contingent of 550 British troops left the palace yesterday evening and will now be based at Basra Airport, with the rest of the 5,000 UK forces in southern Iraq.
Former Foreign Office minister and Newcastle North MP Doug Henderson, said: "I think it's a significant move it's in the right direction."
I believe there was a need for the troops to pull out for some time, and I hope the political stability will be established that will allow further troops to pull out shortly."
Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell said: "It's good news. I hope everything goes well. I've been saying for a long time that when the time is right we've got to pull out. I suppose the time is now right and it gets our soldiers off the streets."