[JURIST] Over 1000 UK service personnel have deserted since the beginning of the war in Iraq, the BBC reported Sunday. A total of 134 deserted in 2003, 229 in 2004, 377 in 2005, and 189 so far in 2006, up from 86 in 2001, and 118 in 2002. The UK Ministry of Defence [official website] disputes the figures, saying that levels of personnel "absent without leave" have remained fairly constant. An increase in Iraq-related desertions is nonetheless supported by anecdotal evidence from Iraq war resisters in the UK and their associates, including the lawyer for former Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith [JURIST news archive], recently dismissed from the military and sentenced to eight months in prison [JURIST report] for refusing to return to service in Iraq, and former SAS member Ben Griffin [JURIST report], who told the BBC that "There's a lot of dissent in the Army about the legality of war and concerns that they're spending too much time there."
The desertions issue is all the more critical as a military justice reform bill [bill summary] now moving through Parliament intended to modernize and merge the process for military prosecutions in the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force includes a controversial provision [advocacy against] in section 8 specifically extending the definition of desertion to include avoiding "military occupation of a foreign country or territory." BBC News has more. A Labour Party backbencher's amendment to drop the maximum penalty for desertion under the Armed Services Bill [text] from life imprisonment to two years was roundly defeated [BBC report] last week.