UK guilty of sending 'child soldiers' to Iraq

BRITAIN broke a United Nations treaty banning the use of child soldiers by sending underage troops - including 17-year-old girls - to Iraq, it has been revealed.

The Ministry of Defence has admitted that army commanders were put under pressure by successive deployments to Iraq and as a result broke international rules by sending soldiers who had not yet reached their 18th birthday.

The revelation is likely to reignite debate about the armed forces' recruitment of those young enough to be at school.

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Britain in 2003 ratified the UN's Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

The treaty obliges signatories to take "all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities".

But the MoD has now admitted that during the first two years of the war in Iraq, 15 British service personnel aged 17 served in the country. As many as four of the 17-year-olds who did so were female.

Under military rules introduced after the ratification of the UN protocol, commanders may only deploy those under 18 in exceptional circumstances.

"Unfortunately, these processes are not infallible and the pressures on units prior to deployment have meant that there has been a small number of instances where soldiers have been inadvertently deployed to Iraq before their 18th birthday," the MoD said.

The forces - and the army in particular - are stepping up their recruitment work among the young as they struggle to maintain their numbers. Last year, over 14,000 people left the army and only 12,000 joined.

Teenagers are by far the largest recruiting group for the military. Last year, 2,760 new recruits to the three armed services were aged 16, and 3,415 were 17. By contrast, there were only 980 recruits aged 23 and 160 aged 28.

Part of the hiring drive has seen an increase in the number of recruitment events in schools, something that has proved especially controversial in Scotland.

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Last year, figures released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that the number of regimental recruitment visits to Scottish schools has risen more than tenfold. There were 14 visits in 2003/04 and 153 in 2005/06.

The army can only visit schools to recruit when the local authority gives permission, and the Scottish National Party has been campaigning for such permission to be withdrawn.

Rose Gentle, of Military Families Against the War, called for a ban on recruiting under-18s. "They're still kids - they don't know what they really want to do with their lives," she said.

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