Sixty attacks a month on British forces as 1,000 soldiers go Awol

British forces in Iraq have been attacked by insurgents nearly 60 times a month since the start of the year. The new figure, covering the first four months of 2006, is a 26 per cent increase on 2005.

The sharp increase is expected to prompt more calls for the troops to be pulled out quickly rather than staying on in the hope that the violence can be controlled.

The revelation coincides with a report, denied by the Ministry of Defence, of a sharp increase in the number of British soldiers who have been absent without leave for more than a month and who may have deserted to escape the long running Iraq conflict. The BBC reported that more than 1,000 soldiers have gone awol for more than 30 days since Iraq was invaded in 2003, and that about 900 have not been found. In 2005, 377 went Awol and are still missing.

The Ministry of Defence vehemently denied that Iraq has caused a sharp increase in the number of soldiers deserting or going absent without leave. They claimed that the numbers going Awol in 2004-05 were the lowest since 2001.The Defence minister, Des Browne, revealed details of the number of attacks on forces in the four British held Iraqi provinces, in a written Commons answer earlier this week. It showed the number rising every month.

In January, there were 36 attacks, in February, 41, in March, 57, and in April, 103, for a total of 237, an average of more than 59 a month. During 2005, there were 562 attacks in the same four provinces, a monthly average of under 47.

The violence is at its worst in Basra, where 71 attacks were recorded in April alone. Another 23 attacks were in Maysan, one of the provinces the British hope to hand over to the Iraqi security forces during the summer.

Early indications for May are that the number of attacks may have fallen towards 2005 levels, with 32 recorded during the first half of the month. But during that period, British forces suffered one of their most catastrophic losses, when a helicopter crashed in Basra killing five, including Flight Lieutenant Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill, the first British woman to die in action in a Iraq. A week later, a roadside bomb killed two more British soldiers, bringing the UK death total in Iraq to 111.

Tony Blair has attributed the upsurge in violence to desperation on the part of terrorists who had hoped to prevent the formation of Iraq's first elected government. Last week Mr Blair said: "The very forces that are creating this violence and bloodshed and terrorism in Iraq are those that are doing it in order to destroy the hope of that country and its people to achieve democracy, the rule of law and liberty." But others argue that by constantly saying that British troops will remain "until the job is done", Mr Blair is turning them into a target for Iraqis who want the troops out.

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