American soldiers are seeking refugee status in Toronto to avoid fighting in, or being sent back to, the war in Iraq.

It is estimated that about 150 U.S. army deserters are living in the city, hoping that they can stay in Canada.

Phil McDowell enlisted in the American military after 9/11, hoping to defend his country against future terrorist attacks. He said he believed when his government claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein was plotting to attack his country, but later lost faith in the campaign.

"I signed up to defend my country," McDowell told CTV Toronto on Tuesday. "I didn't sign up to take part in wars of aggression."

McDowell served a one-year tour of duty in Iraq, and was then discharged from the army. But not long after, he was told he would have to rejoin the army and be sent back to Iraq. This time, he didn't want to go.

"I said 'this can't be right, I don't want to have anything to do with this,'" McDowell said. "They said, 'well, you don't have a choice, you're going back whether you like it or not.'"

McDowell, and soldiers like him, bases his refugee claim on the argument that the United States is fighting an illegal war in Iraq.

But in contrast to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when then prime minister Pierre Trudeau had an open-door policy for Americans dodging the draft for the Vietnam War, these soldiers have an up-hill battle against the Stephen Harper government.

In April, Parliament will vote on a resolution that will decide if the soldiers can stay, but eight deserters have already received deportation notices. Soldiers who are sent back could be arrested and face up to five years in prison.

While he is in Canada, McDowell has a friend in Canadian Michelle Robidoux, who runs a website called She is helping more than 50 American soldiers living north of the border.

In the meantime, McDowell's wife has joined him in Toronto, and he knows that if he were to stay, he may not be able to visit friends and family that he left behind in America.

"I'd definitely like to go back and be able to visit my relatives, but the choice that I made to move to Canada rather than fight in an illegal war -- I'd make the same decision any time."

With a report from CTV Toronto's Tom Hayes