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Soldiers going Awol have trebled since the invasion of Iraq

Severin Carrell / London Independent | March 19 2006

The number of soldiers absconding from the British Army has trebled since the invasion of Iraq, raising fears that the military is facing a crisis in morale.

The Independent on Sunday can reveal that last year more than 380 soldiers went absent without leave and have since failed to return to duty - marking a dramatic increase since the invasion of Iraq three years ago.

Military lawyers and campaigners said that these figures suggested significant levels of disaffection in the ranks over the legality of the occupation, and growing discontent about the coalition's failure to defeat the Iraqi insurgency.

An RAF doctor was last week taken to a court martial for refusing to serve in Iraq, claiming the occupation is illegal, and a former SAS trooper, Ben Griffin, revealed he had quit the army in protest at the war.

Mr Griffin was among the 20,000 anti-war protesters, including a number of families of serving soldiers, who marched in London yesterday to mark the third anniversary of the war in Iraq.

Opposition MPs were alarmed by the new figures. Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for the garrison town of Colchester in Essex, is to question ministers about the numbers in the Commons this week.

Mr Russell, a Defence spokesman, said he believed morale in the army was generally high, but added: "That's an increase worthy of detailed investigation as to whether there's an underlying reason for it."

Ministers are planning to tackle the "refusenik" problem by introducing a new definition of desertion in the Armed Forces Bill now going through Parliament. Soldiers could now face life imprisonment if they refuse to take part in the occupation of a foreign country - a move thought to be directly linked to concerns over Iraq.
Figures released by the MoD show that over the past five years the number of soldiers who have gone Awol and failed to rejoin their units has steadily increased, rising from 86 in 2001 to 118 in 2002 and then 135 in 2003, when the Iraq war began.

But over the past two years - as the Iraqi opposition to the occupation has intensified and coalition casualties increased - the numbers leapt to 230 in 2004 and then to 383. Defence officials admit these figures are troubling, because the number of soldiers who go Awol for a short period, but who then return to active duty or get arrested, has remained fairly level at about 2,600 cases a year.

Gilbert Blades, a leading military lawyer, claimed the true extent of absenteeism and the "refusenik" problem was being disguised by the military. "If they played up the problem with absenteeism, that wouldn't be good for morale. So the MoD isn't keen on putting any emphasis on the fact that people don't want to fight in what they think is an illegal war," Mr Blade said.

He said the Government's decision to tighten up the definition of desertion was "pretty obviously" an attempt by ministers to stop people from refusing to serve in Iraq.

Gwyn Gwyntopher, a counsellor with At Ease, a charity that advises soldiers on their rights to leave the army, said this tougher definition of desertion was a "very big jump" in military law. "It's now happening in such sufficient numbers that someone in the MoD wants to legislate specifically for it," she said.

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