Leading article: The personal tragedies that scar this war

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The Independent Online

Today the funeral will take place of a 19-year-old soldier who committed suicide just weeks before he was due to begin his first tour of duty in Iraq. As he lay dying from a paracetamol overdose, Jason Chelsea told his mother that he could not face the prospect of killing young suicide bombers. Apparently, his officers had told him in training that he could have to shoot children as young as two carrying bombs.

This seems an unlikely scenario. Depraved as the situation has become in Iraq, there have been no reports of insurgents employing such tactics. Perhaps this was an attempt by senior officers to toughen their new recruits mentally.

Yet regardless of this, the suicide of this young man is another example of the enormous strain the traumatic operation in Iraq is putting on our armed services. Private Chelsea has not been the only soldier driven to take his own life by the situation in Iraq. A military policeman, Ken Masters, hanged himself in Basra in October last year. And Captain Masters was not a callow youth, but a soldier with 15 years' experience in the forces, driven to desperation by his job investigating allegations of abuse against British troops. Other examples of institutional strain are not hard to detect. Large numbers of soldiers are quitting the forces, many going absent without leave.

We must recognise that this is no ordinary war. Our troops are nominally in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. But the country is fast falling apart. British soldiers are caught in the middle of a maelstrom of sectarian violence that they are powerless to influence. They have no partner in the Iraqi security forces, which have been infiltrated by religious militias. Our troops find themselves shelled in their compounds by an unseen enemy. When they venture out they are blown up by roadside bombs. It is an impossible situation - and one guaranteed to sap morale. But terrible as the toll has been on our armed forces, the toll on the Iraqi people has been far greater. Yesterday 14 Iraqis were killed in yet more bombings and shootings. Thousands are dying every month, some 3,500 in July alone.

This week a senior British commander suggested that a British troop pullout could begin next year, although there has been no official confirmation. But whether a withdrawal would be militarily or morally justified or not, it is hard to imagine that many British soldiers serving in Iraq are hoping that they will be asked to stay longer in a country descending ever further into bloodshed and chaos. This is a conflict for which the army long ago lost any enthusiasm.