A public inquiry into allegations that British soldiers murdered and tortured civilians during the Iraq War, finally scheduled to start this year, is on an "unprecedented" scale, its secretary has said.
The Al-Sweady Inquiry is examining claims that UK soldiers murdered 20 or more Iraqis and tortured others after the "Battle of Danny Boy" in Maysan Province, southern Iraq, in May 2004.
The Ministry of Defence vigorously denies the allegations and says those who died were killed on the battlefield.
The inquiry was hoped to start last year, but was delayed due to the logistical difficulties of assembling the huge amount of evidence.
The inquiry appointed a team of retired British detectives to investigate what happened from scratch after an earlier royal Military Police inquiry was judged to be inadequate. Its oral hearings are now finally due to begin in March this year and reflect months of information gathering, with statements from hundreds of witnesses including Iraqis as well as military personnel.
Inquiry secretary Cecilia French said it will be "unprecedented in several ways" and said the oral hearings would be as "equally challenging" as the process of getting hold of information had been.
She said: "The inquiry is unprecedented in several ways: first in that it has been tasked with establishing the facts surrounding an incident and its aftermath over which the facts are hotly disputed and had not been properly investigated and where the allegations are of the utmost seriousness. Secondly, and because of this, it has required a significant investigative phase which has taken the inquiry the best part of three years to complete and has involved a massive disclosure exercise and efforts to gather, so far, 337 military witness and 78 Iraqi witness statements, the latter having been undertaken during witness interviews abroad."
The inquiry has identified some 498 military witnesses - issuing requests to provide evidence, known as R9 requests, to 433 of them, with statements coming from 337. It has also identified 377 potential military witnesses, who have been sent questionnaires to determine whether they have any relevant evidence and will present a total of 97 Iraqi witnesses.
Inquiry bosses have spent the past two years collecting statements from them, and arranging the logistics of interviewing them in Beirut and Istanbul, as well as plans for how they will appear via videolink at the inquiry.
The cost so far already stands at £14,946,963 and with hearings expected to go on for a year, is expected to be far more.