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British Defense Chief Meets With Widow of Soldier Over Body Armor Incident in Iraq - 2004-01-19

The widow of a British soldier killed in Iraq after he was ordered to hand back his body armor has met British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, and she says he refuses to accept responsibility for her husband's death.

The death of British Army Sergeant Steve Roberts raised questions about the readiness of British forces to go to war in Iraq in March, after it was disclosed that he had to give back his body armor because there was not enough to go around for all the men who went into battle.

The sergeant's widow, Samantha Roberts, met with Defense Secretary Hoon for an hour. She told reporters Mr. Hoon was more humble than he had been in previous meetings with her, but she was not satisfied with his responses.

"Mr. Hoon has not accepted responsibility, however he has given us assurances that the lessons are going to be examined closely," he said. "He has also promised to meet with us again when the investigation's been completed. I did not call for him to resign, although I think he should consider his position very seriously."

There was no immediate comment from Mr. Hoon's office. In the past, he had defended the British military's preparedness, as he did before parliament's defense committee last May.

"The truth is that when they went into action, into operations, all of our forces were given the right boots, there was sufficient clothing and protective equipment in theater to deal with a force of this size," he said.

Meanwhile, a leading independent defense analyst says the body armor would not have saved Sergeant Roberts when he climbed out of his tank to try to quell a local protest in the early days of the war. The analyst, Michael Clarke of Kings College London, spoke with foreign correspondents in London Monday.

"If he had had body armor he would still have died," he said. "For two reasons. One is that if, he had been wearing it, he was shot at close range and one does not know what would have happened, but this body armor is not designed to prevent close-range shots. Secondly, if he had had body armor, I still do not think he would have been wearing it. Tank crews do not wear body armor in their tanks. It is too heavy, it is bulky and the tank is crowded. What do they do? They strap it on the outside of the back of their tanks with a lot of their other kit."

Mr. Hoon is already under scrutiny for his role in identifying a British weapons scientist, David Kelly, who is believed to have committed suicide after he reportedly told a journalist the government had exaggerated Iraq's weapons threat before the war. An independent judicial report on the Kelly case is due next week.