Army chief accused of lying about Britain's readiness for Iraq war

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The Independent Online

An inquest into the death of a British tank commander killed in Iraq has heard a tape he recorded three days before his death, in which he accuses the Army of telling "a blatant lie" by saying that British troops were ready for war, and tells his wife, "I just want to come home."

Sergeant Steve Roberts, 33, died in a "friendly fire" incident after he was attacked by a stone-wielding Iraqi man while manning a checkpoint outside the southern city of Az Zubayr on 24 March 2003. Had he been wearing the enhanced combat body armour that should have been issued to troops, he would have survived, pathologists found. But he was ordered to give it up three days before his death, due to shortages.

An Army Board of Inquiry into Sgt Roberts' death found that his Browning pistol failed during the attack. He was shot by a soldier in a Challenger tank who was trying to protect him but did not know his gun was inaccurate at short range.

In a audiotape recorded as a letter for his wife, Samantha, Sgt Roberts, from Shipley in West Yorkshire, accuses the then Chief of the General Staff, Sir Mike Jackson, of lying by claiming that Britain was ready for war.

He tells her the military supplies are "disgraceful" and a "joke", and adds he fears being attacked by Americans since his 2nd Royal Tank Regiment does not have the equipment to identify them as friendly forces. He tells her: "Kit we're being told we are going to get, we're not. It's disheartening because we know we're going to have to go to war without the correct equipment."

The tape was recorded over a period from 13 March, as the regiment prepared for battle, to 23 March, the morning before he died. Mrs Roberts, knew nothing of the tape until his funeral. She temporarily left Oxfordshire coroner's court yesterday so that she did not have to hear it again.

On Thursday, Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary, was called to give evidence at the inquest to explain an eight-week delay in authorising extra body armour for Iraq troops.

The MoD told the inquest yesterday that David Williams, director of MoD capability, resources and scrutiny, could appear to explain the delay. This would seem to prevent Mr Hoon, now minister for Europe, being forced to make an embarrassing appearance at an inquest which has turned into a rigorous examination of the standard of protection afforded to troops in Iraq.

The coroner has ordered that Mr Williams appear at the inquest at 9am on Monday. No one from Mr Hoon's office was available for comment yesterday.

Despite his frustration at a lack of equipment, Sgt Roberts tells his wife in the tapes that he understands why he is at war.

"Children are walking around with bare feet, completely ill-fitting, tattered old clothes. We're over here to free them from the regime they're under, so they can grow up and do whatever they want to do. That's the reason why we are here."

He tells Mrs Roberts: "It's a different world, it's very, very poor - they're mostly farmers with their fig trees and lead a very meagre existence. They are all very happy to see us, there's lots of waving, shouting etc. It's nice to see, but we will see how the mood continues the further north we go into the country."

The inquest continues.

'We're going to war without kit'

Undated

"General Jackson said 'we're ready to go', and our vehicles are still in the boat ready to come into port. What a blatant lie that was. [It's] a bit of a joke running out of frontal armour and comnets [radios]. Interesting to see what armour I actually get - I'll keep you posted obviously. We had our first sandstorm last night and I've never seen anything like it. You have to be in it to appreciate it - it's really quite amazing. I think for the first time we actually got about six hours' sleep."

21 March

"We've lost a couple of days because it's been very busy preparing for the war. It's going well. Still haven't seen my combats yet. Kit we're being told we are going to get, we're not. It's disheartening because we know we're going to have to go to war without the correct equipment. It fills me with a bit of remorse really. I think remorse is the right word because I know that our jobs have to be better in order. I don't know the right words to say how much I do love you, but I do love you."

23 March, 1am

"I don't know if you can hear that but that's war planes going across to bomb... enemy which we are going to mop up tomorrow. It's all very strange. I can't really sleep because I may never wake and that we are in enemy territory now and anything could happen. We had a case of 'blue on blue', where American planes bombed an American tank so we are very, very conscious of our surroundings and the helicopters that come over. We don't have panels [friendly-forces equipment that allows coalition troops to identify each other] that the Americans can see, so we are very suspicious of any air movement, but it all seems to have gone without hitch."

Sgt Roberts was killed the next day.