Grieving relatives of servicemen killed in Iraq will march to Tony Blair's doorstep today to ask why the Prime Minister repeatedly refuses to meet them face to face to defend his policies on the war.
Their move comes in the aftermath of two more deaths of British servicemen in Iraq, bringing the UK death toll to 103, and as the number of mothers, fathers and wives of dead servicemen campaigning against the war continues to grow. In the past months, the families have asked for meetings, but their requests have been turned down.
In an open letter published in The Independent today, which will be handed into No 10, the relatives of 20 British soldiers killed in Iraq call on Mr Blair to acknowledge the grief and concerns of bereaved families by meeting them face to face. They want British forces to leave now.
In the letter, they state: "If you truly believe your policies, and the continuing need for the presence of British servicemen and women in Iraq, you should surely have the courage to face the families of those who have paid the ultimate price, and to explain them to us."
The families were given permission to deliver the letter today at noon, when Mr Blair will be in the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Question Time. A spokesman for No 10 said: "The Prime Minister will not be able to see the relatives."
Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said: "The least the Prime Minister can do for the people who have laid down their lives for the country is to meet their relatives. How many more have to die in this illegal and immoral war?"
Another anti-war Labour MP, Alan Simpson, said: "The PM won't meet the families of the victims because they carry a message he doesn't want to hear. Britain is part of the problem in Iraq and not the solution. It is time to bring the boys back in battalions, not body bags."
Downing Street said Mr Blair had met relatives of members of the armed forces who had died in Iraq, but refused to give details.
Andrew Burgin, for the Military Families Against the War, which has now been contacted by relatives of about a third of those who have died, said: "We simply do not believe Mr Blair has ever met any of the bereaved to discuss the war in a private or meaningful way. He may have bumped into people on the road - but standing on the platform with Reg Keys on election night hardly counts, does it? Why can't he tell us who he has met and when? He certainly has never met any of the relatives who are handing in the letter to defend his record - indeed, he scuttled away from the memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral in 2003 without speaking to any of them."
The relatives who have signed the letter feel they are being punished for their public call for the troops to come home now. "If he says what he is doing is right, why can't he face people?" said Peter Brierley, father of L/Cpl Shaun Brierley, 28, who was killed in an accident in March 2003.
"It does signify someone who seems to feel he is on a sticky wicket, someone who has almost got a guilty conscience," Roger Bacon, who lost his son Major Matthew Bacon, 34, in a roadside bomb last September, added.
The latest casualties died in a bomb blast in Amarah during a routine patrol. Another soldier was injured. The deaths - believed to involve members of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards battle group - were in the town where apparent abuse of Iraqi captives was videoed. Tensions in the area have been running high.Comrades of the dead men who tried to attend the scene were stoned.
Today's delegation to Downing Street will be led by Pauline Hickey, whose son Sgt Chris Hickey, of the 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards, was killed by a roadside bomb in October last year three days before he was due to return home. She will hand in a personal letter asking for a meeting with the Prime Minister.
Accompanying her will be several other relatives, including Rose Gentle, who has asked to meet Mr Blair three times since her son Fusilier Gordon Gentle, 19, was killed in June 2004. She said: "I am being contacted by more and more mothers and families saying they don't want their sons to go back to Iraq or saying they no longer believe in this war. The situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate and the presence of British troops is part of the problem and not the solution."
Janet Lowrie, whose two sons continue to serve with the 1st Battalion, The Highlanders, will also be there to represent the families of serving soldiers who are now speaking out publicly for the first time.
Mr Burgin said: "In the last few months, soldiers' families have come forward more frequently and in greater numbers. It is almost as if they are saying we are not going to remain silent any more. They are extremely anxious for their safety. We get a feeling something has changed and there is no doubt a link related to how dangerous it is there now."Reuse content