LONDON – Fifteen British troops under the age of 18 have been "inadvertently" sent to fight in Iraq, violating a U.N. protocol on children's rights, the government said Sunday.
Defense Minister Adam Ingram, who gave the figure in a written statement to lawmakers, said the "vast majority" of the young troops had been within a week of turning 18 when they were deployed, or had been removed from the war zone less than a week after arriving.
"Fewer than five" were women, and none was under 17, he said.
"Unfortunately, these processes are not infallible and the pressures on units prior to deployment have meant that there have been a small number of instances where soldiers have been inadvertently deployed to Iraq before their 18[th] birthday."
The minister said no one under 18 had been sent to Iraq since July 2005, and new measures were in place to ensure it did not happen again.
Teenagers can join the British military at 16 with parental consent. In 2003, Britain signed an optional protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child setting an age limit of 18 for compulsory recruitment and direct participation in hostilities.
Opposition lawmaker Sarah Teather, who had requested the figure, said Prime Minister Tony Blair should apologize to the 15 teenagers.
"This is an inexcusable blunder by the government that reveals a shocking level of incompetence," said Teather, a member of the opposition Liberal Democrats. "There is no way people so young are mentally or emotionally prepared to face bloodshed on the scale seen in Iraq."
Britain currently has about 7,000 troops serving in Iraq, and 130 British personnel have died there since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Defense Ministry said none of the troops under the age of 18 had been killed or injured.