Leading article: The 'Mum factor'

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It was entirely foreseeable - and, indeed, was foreseen - that a US-British occupation of Iraq on such a weak moral and legal basis would cause problems of morale among the troops. As we report today, the "Mum factor" is having a serious effect on the mission. The pressure on British and American governments from the families of service personnel, especially from the mothers of the young men risking their lives in Basra and Baghdad, greatly complicates the moral debt we owe the Iraqi people.

It is a debt that this newspaper continues to believe should be honoured. Despite The Independent on Sunday's passionate opposition to the invasion, we have consistently argued that the occupying forces, having broken Iraq, have a duty to fix it. If "fixing" Iraq now looks a little ambitious, our governments still have an obligation not to make matters even worse - which is surely what an early withdrawal of the troops would do.

Yet it should have been obvious, above all when a million people took to the streets in this country in February 2003, that it would be impossible to sustain the level of domestic support needed to give the Iraq venture durable legitimacy. Without that legitimacy, it would become progressively more difficult to sustain an effective military administration of a large country thousands of miles away. Partly because of the uncertainty of support, even among the less sceptical American people, George Bush failed to commit enough troops to police an effective occupation in the first place. Tony Blair and Mr Bush have recently started to talk about a timetable for withdrawal in a way that seems to be driven by the pressure of domestic opinion more than by the "conditions on the ground" to which the Prime Minister pays such unconvincing lip service.

The "Mum factor" is growing more powerful over time as the open-ended nature of our commitment in Iraq continues to erode a justification for intervention that was flimsy to start with. The moral case for the war has been made successively weaker by the misconduct and alleged misconduct at Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and Haditha, on top of British crimes, starting with the Baha Mousa case, first reported by Robert Fisk in our pages.

Both the US and the British military are facing increasing problems with soldiers going Awol or deserting - again, as first reported by this newspaper. The numbers of US service people now crossing the border to Canada brings back uncomfortable memories of draft-dodging from the Vietnam war - a military campaign that ended after its moral legitimacy collapsed. US and British armed forces also have growing problems of recruitment, as Major General Andrew Ritchie, who retired from Sandhurst in April, said yesterday.

That as many as 14 women - the mothers, grandmothers and wife of servicemen - are prepared to go public today with their unhappiness at the situation in Iraq should give Mr Blair pause. There is a strong culture of loyalty in service families: they understand the effect on morale of individual soldiers and their families criticising political decisions. So it is reasonable to assume that those women who feel so strongly that they are speaking out represent a much wider sense of unease in the armed forces, one which reflects public opinion.

It is instructive to compare Iraq with the last military conflict in which British armed forces suffered significant casualties, namely the Falklands war. In that war, twice as many British lives were lost in three months than the 113 that have been lost in three years in Iraq. Yet, partly because the Falklands was a campaign of limited duration and clear objective - but mostly because it was to recover British territory from foreign aggression - it enjoyed overwhelming popular support at home.

The British deployment to Iraq was never so solidly based. Whatever Mr Blair's conviction about the rightness of the cause, he overlooked a practical requirement of his high-minded foreign policy. Muscular interventionism around the globe to liberate people from tyrants and protect the world from rogue states depends on effective military force. And effective military force depends on soldiers being sure of the rightness of their cause. Which in turn depends on their families back home knowing that the risks they run are defensible.

The "Mum factor" was always another reason why the Iraq war was doomed to failure. In such circumstances, our troops in Iraq are even more deserving of our respect, as we ask them to continue to shoulder the obligations created by this ill-conceived war.