Up to 11,000 British soldiers have deserted the Army fearing they could be deployed in violence-racked Iraq amid a steady rise in the number of soldiers going Absent Without Leave (AWOL) in the occupied country, British Ministry of Defense figures show.
“This represents a continuous and possibly worsening problem,” Liam Fox, the shadow defense secretary, told The Daily Telegraph on Monday, June 11.
Figures released by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) under the Freedom of Information Act contradict government public insistence that desertion has been declining, the paper said.
The figures show that more than 11,000 soldiers deserted the army since the start of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
And there is a steady rise in desertions. In 2007, the number of British soldiers who remain AWOL stood at 283, up from 279 in 2006, 157 for 2005 and 135 from 2004.
“It is clear that support mechanisms are not functioning properly and if this represents a lack of resources then it must be addressed immediately by the government,” said Fox.
The MoD, however, said most of the soldiers going AWOL reported domestic circumstances rather than a desire to avoid serving in violence-racked Iraq.
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that most AWOL is caused by domestic circumstances rather than wishing to avoid military service,” said a spokesman.
There were suggestions that soldiers were going AWOL after tours in Iraq because the Army does not take their mental problems seriously.
One of the soldiers who fled his regiment in Iraq to begin a new life with his girlfriend killed himself in front of her and her two children last month.
A US Army survey found earlier this month increasing rates of mental health problems for troops on extended or multiple deployments in Iraq.
It showed that 20% of soldiers and 15% of marines suffered from acute depression, anxiety or stress.
Separately, the head of the Royal Navy at the time of the Iraq invasion reportedly sought private legal advice about the legality of the US-led invasion.
“Admiral (Sir Alan) West approached lawyers … on whether the impending action over Iraq was justified,” a senior military source told The Independent.
West hadfeared that the Navy and Royal Marines personnel might end up facing war crimes charges in relation to their duties in Iraq.
“There was genuine unease and it was the duty of the chiefs of staff, as the head of the services, to get clarification about whether they would be in breach of international law,” said the source.
“There was also a degree of worry about the independence or otherwise of the government legal advice.
“He (West) and the other service chiefs did not walk blindly into Iraq, they asked all the questions they could under the circumstances and with the ever-present caveat that they could not stray into the field of politics.”
Few days ahead of the US invasion, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, wrote a note confirming the supposed legality of the war.
Staunchly backed by Britain, the US invaded Iraq in March 2003 on the grounds that it was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and had links to Al-Qaeda.
A congressional report later concluded the Bush administration was “dead wrong” on the MWD claim and that Iraq had no link with Al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Britain’s future prime minister Gordon Brown on Monday rejected a call for a new investigation into the government’s handling of the US-led war in Iraq.
Brown, the finance minister who is set to succeed Tony Blair at the end of the month, outlined his objections on a visit to Iraq, as opposition Conservatives asked lawmakers to endorse an inquiry, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“The wrong time to even consider an inquiry is when you have got to give all your effort to supporting the troops on the ground,” Brown told Sky News from Baghdad.
“There are times to consider these things, but the right thing to do at the moment is to give the full support and the full force of government behind the troops on the ground,” Brown said.
But William Hague of the Conservatives rejected this as he asked the House of Commons to back an investigative hearing with the power to summon officials and military commanders for questioning.
“It is not true that our troops would be demoralized or our enemies would take heart if we took the trouble to find out what has gone wrong,” Hague told lawmakers.
“In a democratic society, the examination of successes and failures is a sign of strength, not of weakness,” said Hague, his party’s spokesman on foreign affairs.
Hague told BBC radio earlier that lessons had to be learned from Iraq for Britain’s growing military commitment in Afghanistan, especially before memories fade and e-mail records disappear.
Hague’s call is expected to be voted down by the Labour-dominated House of Commons later on Monday.
Last October the government defeated an opposition motion demanding a similar inquiry.
Brown, who will succeed Blair on June 27, has not indicated any plans to radically change Britain’s policy on Iraq.
But he admitted that mistakes have been made in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
The government has pledged to withdraw this year about 1,600 troops from a force of 7,100 soldiers deployed in Iraq. Some 150 British troops have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 US-led invasion.