Are British troops at breaking point in Iraq?

Fears that British forces in Iraq are reaching "breaking point" grew last night as the first hard evidence of a crisis in morale began to emerge.

Army sources are warning that the mood among soldiers of all ranks is at its gloomiest since the invasion in March 2003. The outlook has become darker as the war proves increasingly intractable and much more dangerous than troops had expected.

A string of incidents in the past week has contributed to the sense of crisis:

* The Ministry of Defence has launched an inquiry into the apparent suicide of Captain Ken Masters, a military police investigator who was found hanged at his barracks in Basra.

* A decision by Private Troy Samuels, who was awarded a Military Cross seven months ago for his bravery under fire in Iraq, to abandon the military rather than return for another tour of duty.

* Seventy soldiers from Private Samuels' battalion, the Princess of Wales Regiment (1PWRR), have also decided to leave the Army during the past year rather than return to Iraq

* An RAF officer, Flt-Lt Malcolm Kendall-Smith, said he was prepared to face jail rather than serve in Iraq, in a war he considers to be illegal. He is to be court-martialled for "refusing to obey a lawful command" and is the first British officer to face criminal charges for challenging the legality of the war.

The increasingly desperate position of British troops in southern Iraq was highlighted last night by the former cabinet minister Clare Short. "The Government are putting the armed forces into an impossible position," she said. "It is obviously affecting morale."

Ms Short, who resigned over the war, is introducing a Bill on Friday to compel the Government to seek parliamentary approval before going to war again. She added: "An army officer stopped me in the street in Whitehall and said his job was talking to parents of those who had been killed in Iraq. He said he supported what I was doing. He said that his job was unbearable. I think the time has come to get a negotiated timetable for an end to the occupation."

Such a move seems unlikely, however. Recent comments by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, that British forces might have to stay in an increasingly volatile conflict for up to 10 more years have exacerbated fears among British forces that the conflict in which they are engaged is open-ended and lacking a credible exit strategy. There are currently 8,500 British troops in Iraq, most serving a six-month tour of duty. Claims have been made that many of those being sent out feel they do not have the experience to cope with the pressures.

According to Combat Stress, the military charity dedicated to helping soldiers suffering psychological problems, the seemingly indefinite struggle has created the greatest crisis of morale among British troops for decades.

Commodore Toby Elliott, the chief executive of Combat Stress, told The Independent that many soldiers were leaving the Army early in the hope that its psychological effects ­ flashbacks, nightmares and guilt that they had survived while colleagues had not ­ would abate. Commodore Elliot said: "The effects of the Iraq situation are comparable to serving in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles when they were subjected to car-bomb attacks."

The incidents are symptomatic of a general malaise. One corporal said: " This has been a hard, hard tour. I would be glad not to be back in Iraq for a while." Another NCO added: "Mr Blair keeps on saying that everything is getting better here. Perhaps he would care to come and see for himself. He is pretty good at sending other peoples' sons to Iraq."

Pte Samuels' decision to leave the Army may be a particularly significantlandmark. A war hero, he was decorated for saving lives during the ambush which earned his comrade Pte Johnson Beharry a Victoria Cross. But he told The Independent yesterday that he decided to leave the moment he was told his unit would be returning to Iraq.

"I couldn't do that," he said, "Not straight away like that. It would be different if they were sending me to somewhere like Afghanistan ­ but not Iraq, right now. The stress for the guys out there is immense. They are seeing so much bad stuff. I owed it to my family to call it a day."

The current intensity of day-to-day combat is evident in the recent incident logs for Pte Samuel's regiment which show that soldiers have faced 109 individual attacks in a single day.

Capt Masters, 40, with 24 years' experience, had been involved in investigations of alleged mistreatment of detainees by British soldiers. Army sources have reported that the stress of investigating colleagues may have contributed to his death.

Pte Samuel's decision to leave showed that "psychological injuries" could affect the bravest of officers, said a spokesman for Combat Stress, which is helping 57 soldiers from the conflict.

Paul Beaver, a defence analyst with close links to senior staff, said: " There's obviously a disappointment that things have not gone better. But the main difference between army morale now and 12 months ago is that there is a resignation among the soldiers that they are in it for the long haul. There is also recognition that some of the elements [the Iraqi police] that they trusted can no longer be trusted and that they must fall back on their own resources."

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