Redcaps killed by Iraq mob 'were let down by officers'

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The Independent Online

An inquest into the deaths of six military policemen in Iraq opened yesterday amid claims from relatives that they were sent to their deaths by the "cavalier attitude" of senior officers.

Equipped with only 50 rounds of ammunition each, and no satellite radio with which to call for help, the men were overrun by a mob of more than 600 armed Iraqis as they tried to defend themselves at Majar al-Kabir police station on 24 June 2003. The soldiers from 156 Provost Company had been ordered to the area as part of an operation to help train recruits for the new Iraqi police force.

Colonel Thomas A Beckett, the officer in command of the redcaps, denied claims by the families that the men had been sent into a volatile "powder keg" as part of an "impossible and impracticable task". He told the Oxfordshire coroner, Nicholas Gardiner, that the local population was considered "benign but fragile" and there had been no history of attacks on British troops in the area which he described as about the geographical size of Northern Ireland, with a population of about 500,000.

Although the population was split by political, religious and tribal lines, many had previously fought against Saddam Hussein's regime and proudly reported how they launched an attack on Ali Hassan al-Majid - the cousin of Saddam known as "Chemical Ali" who is believed to have ordered the gas attack that killed 5,000 Kurds at Halabja in 1988 - as he fled coalition forces in Baghdad.

Col Beckett said: "The intent [of the local people] was to work with the coalition, that was my belief. It was a genuinely held belief by the majority of people that this was the most benign province in Iraq."

That was why, he explained when challenged by the families' solicitor John Mackenzie, there were only 1,060 troops from the 1 UK Battle Group in the province, compared with about 20,000 in Northern Ireland. Col Beckett said that, following the end of hostilities against Saddam, regular infantry soldiers were not needed so much as engineers to rebuild the country and Royal Military Police to help train an Iraqi police force - made up of either Baathists from Saddam's regime or volunteers without any formal training.

Despite an Army Board of Inquiry last year concluding the soldiers' deaths could not have been avoided the men's families remain adamant there has been a cover-up.

Reg Keys, whose son Thomas, 20, a lance corporal, died in the attack, said he was confident that the Army's "cavalier attitude" and a "lack of duty to care" would become apparent during the inquest - expected to last several weeks. "This is the opportunity to know what happened to those six lads and put that information into the public domain," he said.

Mr Keys has become a prominent anti-war campaigner and stood against Tony Blair in his Sedgefield constituency during the last general election, winning 4,252 votes

Mr Keys said:"Up to now, the information as to how they came to find themselves in this situation is very limited. For the Army to say these deaths could not have been prevented is simply not true - this town was a death trap."

An attempt by the families' solicitor to get the former defence secretary Geoff Hoon and Major-General Peter Wall, who was commanding 1 UK division at the time of the deaths, to give evidence in person at the inquest was turned down by the coroner as "highly inappropriate".

The men killed were Cpl Paul Graham Long, 24, from Colchester; Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell, 41, from Chessington, Surrey; Cpl Russell Aston, 30, from Swadlincote, Derbyshire; Cpl Simon Miller, 21, from Washington, Tyne & Wear; L/Cpl Benjamin John McGowan Hyde, 23, from Northallerton, North Yorkshire; and L/Cpl Thomas Richard Keys, 20, from Bala, Wales.

The inquest was adjourned and will reconvene today to hear pathological and ballistics evidence.