Are British Soldiers Deserting Iraq?
The British government finds itself on the defense following a BBC report from this weekend that more than 1,000 members of the British military have deserted since the start of the Iraq war.
With Iraq still engulfed in violence and Prime Minister Tony Blair facing calls for resignations from his own party, the story suggests British unhappiness with the Iraq war extends down to boots on the ground.
Government officials say the upward trend in desertions, made public during a House of Commons debate last week, doesn't represent anything unusual. According to the BBC, 86 soldiers who went absent without leave in 2001 are still missing. There are 118 reported still missing from 2002, 134 from 2003, 229 from 2004, 377 from 2005, and 189 so far in 2006.
"We regard that figure as fairly constant," a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said. "It often happens for family reasons and there is no evidence to suggest operational commitments contribute significantly to the figures."
Military law expert Gilbert Blades, who represents soldiers at courts martial, was quoted as saying "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.
The Times of London, relying on the same House of Commons source, notes that 3,000 British soldiers have gone absent without leave every year since the start of the Iraq war. Two thousand have been found and 1,000 of them remain at large.
The Times, which editorially supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reported skepticism among defense attorneys about the government's denials that the desertion rates reflect unhappiness about Britain's role in Iraq.
The London daily quoted a lawyer representing a flight lieutenant sentenced to eight months in prison for disobeying orders to train for deployment to Iraq who said that he was approached regularly "by people who are seeking to absent themselves from service." He claimed that there had "definitely been an increase."
The tabloid Mirror quoted an unnamed 23-year-old deserter as saying, "There are some soldiers who are gungho about Iraq but most feel it's America's war."
The Scotsman reports that the news comes as the British parliament "debates a law that will forbid military personnel from refusing to participate in the ordered occupation of a foreign country."
Two weeks ago, the Edinburgh daily reported that the House of Commons had rubber-stamped a change in the official definition of desertion "to include soldiers who go absent without leave and intend to refuse to take part in a 'military occupation of a foreign country or territory.'"
Antiwar activists cited the change in language as evidence that British ministers "are trying to scare soldiers from objecting to future preemptive strikes - a charge denied by the Ministry of Defence," the Scotsman reported.
On May 23, the MP's voted overwhelming to keep life imprisonment as the penalty for desertion.
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