SOME of the most experienced soldiers from Britain's 16 air assault brigade, the Army's high-profile ''air cavalry'', were being secretly considered for the sack while they were serving on the frontline in Iraq, it emerged yesterday.
The men, including members of the parachute regiment's elite pathfinders' unit, had their names forwarded to their commanding officers last June for ''possible administrative action'' under manning control regulations defence ministers say have not been used for two years.
Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, who has also seen the documents obtained by The Herald, called last night for an investigation into abuses of the system.
More than 600 serving and former soldiers are meanwhile preparing a joint class action suit against the Ministry of Defence, alleging breaches of their human and employment rights. They claim they were hoodwinked or bullied into leaving the Army early or signing up for short-term contracts which would affect their pension benefits through manipulation of the manning control system.
Mr Keetch said: ''Holding manning control reviews while soldiers are at war is disrespectful, to say the least. These reviews should be stopped and an inquiry set up The continuation of this policy, in direct contradiction of assurances given to me by ministers in the House of Commons, makes everyone nervous and undermines morale.''
Manning control was originally introduced to allow dismissal of soldiers considered to be ''not fit for a full Army career'' after serving six, nine or 12 years to make way for new recruits. Those affected by it say it is now being used to save money on pensions from the MoD's overstretched budget.
Soldiers leaving before the 12-year stage of a potential 22-year career forfeit an average (pounds) 200,000 in pension benefits.
The documents obtained are dated June 27, 2003, and were sent to commanding officers by the Army's personnel centre at Kentigern House in Glasgow.
One says: ''Below is a list of soldiers under your command who will reach the nine and 12-year manning control point of their engagement in approximately 15 to 18 months' time and are to be considered for MCP.''
It then details the procedures to be followed if any of the soldiers are to be considered for dismissal. All are corporals or lance-corporals, the men who command infantry sections of seven other soldiers.
The documents were issued while the men were still on frontline duty in Iraq last year, patrolling an area where six military policemen were subsequently massacred by an angry mob.
Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, wrote to The Herald on February 5, stating that the MCP procedures: ''have not been used since 2002''.
Tom Reah, the Harrogate solicitor representing most of the soldiers involved in suing the MoD, said: ''People are still being forced out under this supposedly suspended procedure, despite what ministers say.''
An MoD spokesman said: ''No one was dismissed under MCP regulations in 2003. We have no current plans to conduct MCP reviews, but they remain an essential tool for controlling the manning structure.
''MCP policy is still part of regulations governing soldiers' employment with the Army and individuals could be subject to it at some time in the future. That is why units are reminded of its existence.''
Aggrieved soldiers have set up their own website at www.2para.co.uk.