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THE armed forces have suffered a recruitment crisis on Merseyside and Cheshire since the allied invasion of Iraq, figures obtained by the Daily Post have revealed.

Figures secured under Freedom of Information legislation show that the number of people joining the Army has dropped by almost a third across the region.

And the situation is even worse for the RAF with recruitment at the service's Liverpool office down by 65% since 2002/03, the financial year which ended a month after the invasion.

In the year ending March 2006, just 63 people joined the RAF, compared with 175 in 2002/03.

Army recruitment, down overall by 30%, has been hit hardest in the Wirral recruitment office based in Birkenhead.

The number of recruits had risen from 177 in 2001/02 to 196 in 2002/03 but had fallen to 99 in the year 2005/06 - a drop of 50%.

Army chiefs last night admitted that during conflicts involving British troops, the number of recruits normally rises.

But the exact opposite has happened this time with appeals on Army websites specifically asking for recruits from Liverpool and Manchester.

The recruiting office in Liverpool is now to increase its opening hours while existing soldiers are being offered financial incentives to attract new recruits.

And a letter sent to soldiers within the former King's Regiment, which primarily recruits from Merseyside and Cheshire, states it is the top priority for recruits.

Politicians last night blamed the recruitment slump on the war in Iraq. British troops are also involved in increasingly bloody activity against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A total of 113 soldiers have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, including several from Merseyside and Cheshire.

Southport MP John Pugh said: "I think the fact that these recruitment figures are against all perceived wisdom of numbers increasing during conflict says a lot.

"It clearly shows that young men across Merseyside just do not want to commit themselves to a deeply unpopular war and risk their lives in order to fulfil policy objectives they don't agree with.

"I think it is quite obviously the case that the situation in Iraq is as dangerous as ever, but in the past people have been prepared to risk their lives if the cause was just or patriotic. Iraq is neither of those."

Mark Henzel, spokesman for the Merseyside Stop the War Coalition, said: "We have made a point of going to recruitment centres and TA bases to hand out leaflets to people.

"We think that once they know what will happen if they join, they'll think twice. Would anyone want to be sent into a war without the proper equipment? That is what is happening. It is obviously a tactic which is working."

The Royal Navy office in Liverpool has seen a smaller drop at 10% but it could only supply figures dating back to 2003/04 due to "management information system changes".

Gerald Howarth, a Conservative defence spokesman, said: "The war in Iraq is unpopular and is undoubtedly having an adverse affect on mums because of all the publicity about roadside bombs and Warriors being set on fire.

"If only the mums got to hear of all the good work carried out in Basra and the contributions being made by our troops, it might make a difference."

Merseyside and Cheshire has traditionally been a rich source of recruits for all the armed forces, said retired Lt Col John Downhan, secretary of the newly-formed Duke of Lancaster Regiment.

It came into being on Saturday following the merger of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, the Kings Border Regiment and the King's Regiment.

Lt Col Downham said: "Recruitment figures in Merseyside are expected to improve over the coming months as we create closer ties between the area and the new regiment.

"That is one of the reasons why we think the numbers are down. Conflicts normally lead to a increase in the numbers recruiting, with people coming to us looking for adventure.

"That isn't the case at the moment, but if people are being put off by the possibility of going to war, we're probably better off without them."

Among the schemes being planned is a £1,300 cash payment for existing soldiers if they can recruit friends and family into the armed forces too.

A spokesman for the Army described the payments as a "standard way of recruiting."

A recent government report revealed a recruiting crisis has left the armed forces with "serious manning short-falls" in 80 key operational areas.

The report by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body revealed some Army units were so over-stretched they "routinely breach" guidelines on the number of tours of duty considered healthy.

The Army is 50% short of recruitment targets and the Navy 35% short.

The Government has offered up a variety of reasons for the shortfall, with one minister blaming coverage of the investigation into the Deepcut army barracks, where several soldiers apparently killed themselves amid claims of a bullying culture.

Anxious families await decision to send Merseyside soldiers to war-torn Iraq > > >

Anxious families await decision to send Merseyside soldiers to war-torn Iraq

FAMILIES of more than 600 soldiers - mainly from Merseyside - have been told to prepare to see their loved ones off to Iraq later this year.

The 1st Battalion The King's Regiment - which has become 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment as a result of the merger - is expected to be sent to Iraq in November.

A letter has been sent from Lieutenant Colonel Simon Hutchinson MBE, commanding officer, 1st Battalion the King's Regiment, which tells families to expect an announcement soon.

They last served in Basra in 2003.

He wrote: "Undoubtedly this will generate a certain amount of stress and anxiety amongst family and friends.

"Nearly all soldiers with knowledge of Iraq would maintain that events there are not as negative as they are reported in the media.

"There is more good news than one ever gets to hear about, and the troops do not feel as unsupported as one might be forgiven for thinking.

"The situation is finely balanced, and certainly there are risks, but we are now firmly embarked on the process of becoming fully trained and equipped to deal with them.

"We will not deploy for several months yet, and before we do we will refine a plan to support and inform friends and family left behind. Details of this will be made widely available in due course."

There are already 300 Territorial Army soldiers from the region in Iraq, and Lt Col John Downhan, secretary of the newly-formed Duke of Lancaster Regiment, said: "They were all volunteers. We had no problem finding people prepared to go."

Another 200 were deployed from the TA in the region in 2003 and 2004.

The tour will run until early June 07.