- More than 1,000 members of the British
military have deserted the armed forces since the start of the 2003 Iraq
war, the BBC has discovered.
- It comes as Parliament debates a law
that will forbid military personnel refusing to participate in the occupation
of a foreign country.
- During 2005 alone, 377 people deserted
and are still missing. So far this year another 189 are on the run.
- Some 900 have evaded capture since the
Iraq war started, official figures say.
- But former defence minister Don Touhig
disputed the numbers.
- He told BBC Radio Five Live there were
no "hard facts" to suggest the Iraq conflict was prompting increased
numbers to leave the forces.
- The Ministry of Defence claims it does
not keep details of whether desertion is on the rise but Labour MP John
McDonnell told Parliament this week there had been a tripling in cases
over the past three years.
- He was speaking in a debate about new
laws which would make refusal to take part in the occupation of a foreign
country punishable by a maximum life sentence in prison.
- I am approached regularly by people who
are seeking to absent themselves from service Justin Hugheston-Roberts
- It is unclear how many troops are deserting
because they do not want to go to Iraq and how many are doing so because
of personal reasons such as family problems, BBC world affairs correspondent
Jonathan Charles says.
- Lawyers who represent members of the
military at courts martial say that they are increasingly being contacted
by people who want advice about getting out of having to serve in Iraq,
even if they do not want to go to the extreme of deserting, our correspondent
- 'Illegal acts'
- Justin Hugheston-Roberts was the solicitor
for Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith who was sentenced to eight
months in prison for refusing to follow orders in connection with a deployment
- He said: "As part of my day to day
job, I am approached regularly by people who are seeking to absent themselves
from service. There has been an increase, a definite upturn."
- There's a lot of dissent in the Army
about the legality of war and concerns that they're spending too much time
there Ben Griffin
- Gilbert Blades, an expert in military
law who represents soldiers at courts martial, said the numbers leaving
due to their views on Iraq were often obscured as they were not counted
as conscientious objectors.
- "One can't help thinking that what's
behind every absence is the problem in Iraq and I would think that if the
real truth was told, then the Iraq problem has contributed to a huge number
of people going absent," he told BBC Radio Five Live.
- Our correspondent says there is plenty
of anecdotal evidence from military personnel that they are demoralised
by the continuing conflict in Iraq and the fact that, despite their best
efforts, there is little improvement in the situation there.
- There is no hard fact to suggest that
our engagement in Iraq is actually causing people to leave the service
Former defence minister Don Touhig
- Ben Griffin was a member of the elite
SAS. Earlier this year he told his commanding officer earlier he was not
prepared to return to Iraq because he said he saw American forces carrying
out what he thought were illegal acts.
- He was allowed to leave the military
and he now says: "I was disturbed by the general day-to-day attitude
of the American troops. They treated Iraqis with contempt, not like human
beings. They had a complete disregard for Iraqi lives and property."
- Mr Griffin would never have considered
deserting but he says his views are shared by many others in the British
- He told the BBC: "I can't speak
for others but there's a lot of dissent in the Army about the legality
of war and concerns that they're spending too much time there".
- He says Iraq is different to other conflicts
because, in other operations, the main aim is to improve life for the local
population and he believes that is not what has happened in Iraq.
- Mr Griffin says: "There's contempt
for the locals. We don't even know how many have been killed."
- His advice to others is not to desert
- but that if they have doubts, they should follow their conscience, speaking
out if they think that the Iraq conflict is wrong.
- Major General Patrick Cordingley, who
commanded the 7th Armoured Brigade Desert Rats in the first Gulf war, said
servicemen's views on Iraq was prompting some to leave, but he said "good
leadership" would avoid it reaching epidemic proportions.
- "There are aspects of this particular
conflict that one has to have sympathy with," he told the programme,
saying that service personnel who had been to Iraq before or who had families
who were unhappy about them going were among those who might not want to
- "If you have such a person in your
unit you have to discuss things with them... you do not necessarily want
people with you if they have that particular view," he added.
- Former defence junior minister Don Touhig
disputed the findings, arguing that the evidence was purely anecdotal.
- "We've had lots of assertions of
large numbers of people leaving the forces or going absent because of Iraq.
In 2001 2.65% of the forces went absent... in 2005 it's 2.63%," he
- "There is anecdotal evidence perhaps
that your reporters have gotten - and I fully accept that. But there is
no hard fact to suggest that our engagement in Iraq is actually causing
people to leave the service."
- He also claimed there was no evidence
that falling recruitment numbers had any link to the situation in Iraq.