Soldiers families go on attack

Relatives of soldiers serving in Iraq are to march on No 10 for the first time, in protest against the war

They are to lobby Downing Street next week, making Tony Blair the first serving Prime Minister of modern times to be lobbied by military families for the withdrawal of British troops from action overseas.

The protests on 26 April are expected to involve more than 40 close relatives of soldiers posted to Iraq and Afghanistan and relatives of the 103 British personnel killed in Iraq, as well as four Iraq veterans. Among them will be 11 parents and children of men serving or about to be deployed in the Gulf, in Guards regiments, the infantry regiments, special operations forces and airborne units.

The families are due to hand in to Mr Blair at No 10 an anti-war petition that also calls for the Prime Minister to meet the families of dead soldiers, following a lobby of MPs at the House of Commons. The petition has already been signed by more than 80 people with military ties.

One mother, Linda Holmes, told The Independent on Sunday she would be protesting because the invasion was illegal. "We shouldn't be there in the first place. The Iraqis don't want us there. We are an occupying force," she said.

Until now, the families of serving personnel have held back from publicly attacking Britain's presence in Iraq. Criticisms of Mr Blair's policies in the Gulf have previously been dominated by the parents and wives of British troops killed there.

But last week, an RAF doctor, Flt Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith, became the first serving officer to be convicted and jailed after a court martial for refusing to serve in Iraq because, he claimed, the invasion was illegal.

The 26 April protests will echo increasingly vocal complaints by military families in the United States, where one mother, Cindy Sheehan, built a "peace camp" outside President Bush's ranch in Texas in 2004. Ms Sheehan's campaign group of 48 parents of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, is protesting at the ranch in Crawford this weekend.

President Bush was forced late on Friday to issue a personal statement backing his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, after a chorus of complaints from retired US generals over the handling of Iraq. In Britain, discontent among Army wives about the continuing conflict in Iraq is also surfacing in internet chatrooms. Several mothers are repeatedly sending emails to the Prime Minister, complaining about Britain's involvement.

Denise, a former civil servant, said: "We're in their country as invaders. That's not what my son thinks. He says it's bad out there and these people need help. So I think sometimes we've gone out there like the Red Cross."

The grandmother of two British soldiers, one who has just served in Iraq and another who is going to Afghanistan, asked not to be named, for fear of repercussions against her grandsons. "This isn't for Queen and country," she said. "This war is unfair, unjust and illegal. It's not that our soldiers are cowards, or their parents and grandparents aren't proud, I just don't want to see their uniforms on a coffin."

Mary, the mother of a 19-year-old private from south-west England who came back from Iraq last week, said: "When my son was 16, he wanted to join the Army. We're extremely proud, and we want him to stay in the Army. But we definitely don't want my son to fight in 'President' Blair's and President Bush's oil war. He's not a mercenary."

Her son does not share her views: "He's what the army would call a very good soldier. He says, 'I'm a soldier. I don't have any political opinions.'"

Some names in this article have been changed

A RIGHT TO SPEAK OUT

Linda Holmes, a medical secretary from Warwickshire, has a son in the Grenadier Guards, Guardsman Robert Holmes, 24: "I think it's an illegal war. Initially, because Robert wasn't really connected with Iraq at the time, I was very complacent. Once he announced he was going out I thought, I can't stand idly by, because there were all those deaths which were coming to the surface around that time. This is my personal view. It's not Robert's, but we live in a democracy. I have the right to say what I feel. I just hope that Robert doesn't get any backlash for this."

JOHN LAWRENCE

THE ANXIOUS WAIT

The 19-year-old son of Janet Lowrie, from Dumbarton, Scotland, Pte Peter McCallum of the Highlanders Regiment, completes six months in Iraq this week: "He's going for a full career in the Army but we want them all to leave, every one. They're not allowed to say much. They're doing their jobs, bless them. But every solitary one of us in our family wants him home. Some have to stay to help get the country back in shape, but the Iraqis aren't interested in them all being there. Peace isn't going to happen when they've got thousands of men standing there with guns."

ASHLEY COOMBES

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