At Least 1,000
UK Soldier Desert


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 has found.
'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 to Iraq.
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 military.
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 go there.
"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 said.
"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.




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