Ministers finally admit full scale of war casualties

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Indy Politics

Casualty figures show that more British soldiers have been seriously hurt fighting insurgents than during the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Figures for casualties before 2006 are to be published for the first time next week by the Ministry of Defence. The MoD has been wary of issuing the figures, in spite of attempts by campaigners using Freedom of Information legislation to find out the casualty rate.

The Independent has learned the figures will show that 114 British soldiers were seriously hurt in Iraq from 2004, compared to 46 during the invasion of 2003.

In Afghanistan, the figures reveal that the casualty rate rose last year to 30 seriously hurt, compared to two for the previous year. The rise was caused by a Taliban offensive last summer, and raised fears that it could rise sharply again when the next, expected, offensive gets underway.

The number of British fatalities in both conflicts have been regularly released by the MoD. The number of UK troops killed in Iraq rose to 134 this week after a soldier died in Britain having been critically injured while on patrol. The number killed in Afghanistan since 2001 rose to 52 after the death on 8 March of Warrant Officer Michael Smith in Helmand province.

Last night, MPs on all sides called for figures on the wounded to initiate a debate about how British casualties are treated at home. Some MPs contrasted how UK casualties returned home with little publicity whereas in America returning casualties are treated as war heroes.

The refusal to publish casualty figures has helped the impact of both conflicts on communities across the country to be underestimated. In many cases, seriously injured soldiers have had to cope with loss of limbs.

Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat spokesman, said casualties were the forgotten story of the war. "The publishing of these figures ought to serve as a catalyst for a major debate about how we treat our wounded heroes when they return," he said. "It is a wonder to me that the MoD have taken quite so long to publish these figures and that we, as a nation, haven't made more of the casualties. They show how dangerous Iraq has become and how tough Afghanistan was last year, and could be this summer."

A former Labour defence minister, Peter Kilfoyle, said: "They are paying an unacceptable price for following the orders of their superiors who got it totally and absolutely wrong."

He said the figures also raised renewed questions about the treatment of soldiers at Selly Oak hospital, Birmingham, following the closure of military hospitals. MPs have repeatedly voiced concern about the reports of poor treatment of soldiers on the NHS, but ministers insist they were right to close military hospitals and focus their treatment on a military ward of an NHS hospital.

The publication of the figures next week is unlikely to end the row. Some campaigners believe they are suspiciously low, but the MoD will insist they are as accurate as possible. They have been processed by the Defence Analytical Services Agency. "It has been a massive job," said one source.

The figures also reveal that soldiers are at more risk from disease or non-battle injuries in Iraq. UK field-hospital admissions in Iraq since the start of 2006 were 1,460, with fully 1,324 of these suffering from disease or non-battle injuries.