One thousand UK troops AWOL in Iraq12:57pm 29th May 2006
Nearly 1,000 British soldiers who have gone on the run since the start of the Iraq war are still missing, the Ministry of Defence has admitted.
A total of 8,600 troops have gone absent without leave since 2003.
While most have returned to their units or have been caught by police, official fig-ures show that 929 serving sol-diers are still missing.
They are the equivalent of around one and a half infantry battalions - at a time when the Army is at full stretch and tak-ing on hazardous operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last night, military insiders blamed the AWOL figures on the dire effects of overstretch in the Army. Soldiers returning from hazardous operations abroad are facing grinding routines and heavy workloads during what are meant to be 'recuperation' periods.
At the same time, lawyers specialising in military cases said they were being con-tacted by more and more service personnel wanting advice on how to avoid serving in Iraq.
The number of soldiers going AWOL stood at 2,670 in 2001.
But in 2004 - the year after the Iraq invasion - that rose to 3,050, before dropping back slightly to 2,725 last year.
In 2005 alone, 377 soldiers went absent without leave and never came back. So far this year, another 189 have disap-peared.
Those going AWOL are liable to arrest by military police or civilian police, but because of a lack of resources few are now actively pursued.
Those determined not to return to their units are unlikely to be caught if they stay out of trouble.
Solicitor Justin Hugheston-Roberts, who represented RAF Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith - the offi-cer recently sentenced to eight months in jail for refusing to serve in Iraq - said more and more service personnel are contacting him looking for ways to avoid service abroad.
He added: '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.'
Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, said that the AWOL phenomenon is due to the sheer workload of hard-pressed soldiers rather than political objections to the Iraq war.
He added: 'Overstretch is producing desperate situations in Army barracks.
'Soldiers come back from operations in Iraq with money saved up, they go home on leave and have a great time and then they face coming back to a grinding routine, with huge amounts of pretty dull work to be done - vehicle maintenance, guard duty.
'It's endless, and there aren't enough people to do it. Soldiers find themselves absolutely flat out in what is supposed to be a rest period - and because people are drafted into other units to make up the numbers else-where, you may find five jobs covered by two men. That's what overstretch does, and it grinds people down and they can't face going back to work.'
The Ministry of Defence claimed the trend in AWOL numbers was broadly flat in recent years, and denied sug-gestions of a link to the war in Iraq.
A spokesman said: 'Most ser-vicemen who go absent do so for personal and family reasons.'
But she admitted there is no record of how many personnel have gone AWOL because of
the Iraq War. There are no fig-ures available for the Royal Navy or the RAF, she added.
Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox voiced astonishment that almost 1,000 soldiers who had disappeared since the start of the war remained at large, and had not been traced.
He said: 'It is simply not credible. Has the Ministry of Defence been taking lessons from the Home Office in administration?
'It is vital that all these indi-viduals are tracked down, as we have a volunteer Army and everyone who chooses to join the Services knows what might be expected of them.'
Liberal Democrat Defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: 'It is an astonishing number and it clearly shows the strain and stress that the Army in particular is under