ARLINGTON, Va. — Reports of sexual assaults involving active-duty servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan were up about 26 percent in fiscal 2008, a Defense official said Tuesday.

The Defense Department tracks sexual assaults of servicemembers against servicemembers, servicemembers against civilians, and civilians against servicemembers, said Dr. Kaye Whitley of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

For fiscal 2008, the Defense Department tracked 165 reports of sexual assault in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with 131 for the prior fiscal year, Whitley said.

“An increase in numbers does not mean there was an increase in assaults,” Whitley said. “I prefer to think of the increase in numbers meaning that people have confidence in the system, as in there is a system in place to take care of them if they report it.”

Overall, there were 2,923 reports of sexual assault for all the military services in fiscal 2008, an increase of about 8 percent over the previous fiscal year, Whitley said.

The Defense Department’s response to increasing numbers of sexual assaults is nothing new, said Anita Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Miles Foundation, a group for military-related victims of domestic violence.

Ever since Congress mandated that the Defense Department keep track of sexual assaults, the department has claimed the rising numbers of reported cases has reflected better reporting, Sanchez said.

Historically, sexual assaults go up as troops move, she noted.

“It provides some of them some anonymity, meaning that if they feel they are about to go to the front lines, they have nothing to lose; no one will find them,” Sanchez said. “Or if they or their victim are transitioning back to the States, someone is not going to want to make a report because they are afraid it will keep them in country.”

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