US army deserters flee Iraq

Last week’s successful election in Iraq was a major step towards the withdrawal of US troops from the country. But some soldiers are jumping the gun. They’re deserting the US army, insisting the occupation is unjust.

At present, more than 5,000 troops are missing from duty, the Pentagon says.

One of them is Andre Shepherd, who found a new home in Germany. In 2007, before his second deployment in Iraq, Andre fled the army, calling the war illegal.

“When the CIA report came and they said that there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, that really made me angry,” Andre said. “I wondered if there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the CIA and obviously the Bush administration knew about this, then why did we just destroy Fallujah, completely wiped out the entire city?” he asked.

When Andre's unit first returned to its military base in Germany, the apache helicopter mechanic said he knew he could no longer be a part of America's war efforts.

“I am sitting here and thinking: what am I doing? I’m putting together a lethal machine that is just killing innocent people.”

Andre told the army he was going on holiday to the US, but instead went on the run in Germany. But after 19 months in hiding, he decided on another course of action. In his case, asylum was the only option.

Andre's lawyer Dr Reinhard Marx says German and international law is on Andre's side but there will be challenges ahead.

“Speaking in legal terms, he has good reason; but speaking in political terms – if you consider the particular relationship between Germany and the US, it will be a very difficult question and it will raise a lot of problems,” Marx said.

Andre Shepherd may become the first US soldier to get asylum status in Europe and many here also believe that this case will be a key indicator of Germany's stance on the war in Iraq.

Even though Germany has declared the war illegal, the country is the main staging post for the US military with around 60,000 US troops stationed there.

Criss Capps is an Iraq war veteran. Like many of his colleagues, he also questions the war's legitimacy.

“So if I'm doing work for the Iraqis by watching them with an M16, while they are working their ass off filling sand bags, this is not the kind of help we need to bring to Iraq,” he said.

“What I did see in Iraq is basically Iraqis being exploited; a lot of Americans made a lot of money.”

Tim Hubert from the Military Counseling network says around 80 soldiers contact his organization each year looking for ways to get out of the army, and he thinks Andre's case may open the flood gates for many other US soldiers.

“I think giving Andre asylum would give hope to a lot of soldiers struggling with guilt right now – fighting a war they feel is unjust, and not having a way out of a contract they entered under extremely different circumstances,” Huber said.

Hubert says that if Andre loses then he will be turned over to the US authorities. And if they decide to prosecute him with desertion he could even face the death sentence.