Big rise in deserters 'fuelled by Iraq war'
The Guardian, Richard Norton-Taylor and Audrey Gillan, Wednesday April 13, 2005

The number of soldiers to desert the army or go absent without leave has more than doubled over the past year, the Ministry of Defence has revealed. There are now more than 500 soldiers whose whereabouts are unknown.

The rise coincided with the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. Independent sources said yesterday that the war was clearly a factor. However, the rising trend over four years suggests that other issues also played a part. The number of soldiers still illegally absent last year totalled 530, compared with 205 in 2003, 150 in 2002, and 100 in 2001

The figures show that soldiers went Awol more than 3,000 times last year, with only a third of that figure accounting for returns to base within 21 days. The largest number of soldiers going Awol came from the infantry, followed by the Royal Logistic Corps and the Royal Artillery, according to the MoD.

The figures were released to Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, a garrison town. Though he first asked for the information in January, the MoD did not respond until it was too late for him to pursue the matter.

The response to his original question came more than two months later in a letter from the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram. "The mere fact they took so long to answer the question is significant," Mr Russell said yesterday.

He asked for the information after being told by a source that a growing number of soldiers disapproved of the government's stand on Iraq.

He still has not seen Mr Ingram's letter, which was addressed to the Commons on the last full working day of parliament and gives no explanation for the rise. The MoD said yesterday that it was unable to comment.

Gilbert Blades, a lawyer representing Awol soldiers, said Iraq was "probably the biggest factor". But he said a growing number of young soldiers were also not prepared to "suffer the indignities and discipline" of army life.

Justin Houston-Roberts, who also represents soldiers, said: "There's been a very noticeable increase of not only soldiers but airmen as well asking our advice on being absent without leave," he said.

"Some are subjected to horrific bullying and run away to save themselves ... There are huge amounts of reasons but the conflict in Iraq is significant."

He added: "When the conflict started we had a very noticeable increase in requests to assist soldiers who wanted to leave the services or had done so without permission.

"I think Iraq has had an impact. It's not necessarily people who don't want to fight but people who have found themselves in situations upon their return that they can't necessarily cope with."

Mark McGhee, another solicitor, said: "Certainly from my experience of dealing with soldiers returning from Iraq, I would be very concerned about the fact that there's been a doubling up of the numbers going Awol."