Shortage of body armour blamed for soldier's death

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An Army sergeant was killed in Iraq because he did not have adequate body armour, and one of the reasons for the shortage of the life-saving equipment was because the Government did not want to show it was preparing for war, an official report has concluded.

The Army's Board of Inquiry also revealed that Sergeant Steven Roberts, 33, died after being hit by "friendly fire" from a heavy calibre machine gun fired by a fellow soldier who had not been taught that the weapon was inaccurate at close range.

The report strongly criticised the Ministry of Defence for failing to ensure enough sets of the enhanced combat body armour were available for troops during the war. The MoD had been warned that supplies were insufficient as early as September 2001, but it did not order more stocks until December 2002, just three months before the invasion.

Senior officers had complained privately in the past that procurement orders were delayed because the Government continued to insist it was still pursuing the diplomatic process through the United Nations to solve the Iraq crisis.

Yesterday's report said: "During the summer of 2002, constraints were placed on military activities [including procurement] which might have negatively impacted on negotiations with the United Nations."

Sergeant Roberts' death became a cause célèbre after his widow, Samantha, accused the Army of failing her husband. The tank commander, from Shipley, West Yorkshire, had originally been issued with enhanced body armour but it was withdrawn on 20 March 2003 - four days before his death - due to shortages. After his death, Mrs Roberts released an audio diary in which he had called supplies to soldiers in Iraq "a joke".

The report said: "Had Sgt Roberts been wearing correctly fitting and fitted ECBA when this incident unfolded, he would not have been fatally injured."

The report also highlighted other failures which contributed to his death, but the identity of those involved were redacted from the published document.

Sgt Roberts was killed at Az Zubayr, near Basra, on 24 March 2003 after troops became involved in a disturbance. He was shot by another member of his unit, the 2 Royal Tank Regiment, who had opened fire with an L94 machine gun in an attempt to protect him.

An Iraqi civilian, Zaher Zaher, was also shot and killed during the incident.

The report said: "The fact that there are inadequate written procedures or caveats regarding very close range engagements with the L94 coaxial machine gun led to [the gunner] making an incorrect assessment as to the appropriateness of using this weapon system to engage Mr Zaher."