Soldiers steeling themselves for return to Iraq

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The Independent Online

For some of the soldiers of the 20th Armoured Brigade, scheduled to go to Iraq in April and May, this will be the third and in some cases, fourth tour of duty. As speculation over a withdrawal timetable mounts, there is general agreement that the dangers on the ground are increasing.

"Third time unlucky," joked Cpl Neil Burnett, 27, of the Adjutant General's Corps, before adding soberly: "I am a bit on edge. Not scared, just a bit more nervous than I was the first or second time."

"It is more dangerous now because I think people are more sneaky. Whereas in the initial war phase we knew where the enemy was, we could move forward. Now we are smack-bang in the middle and we have got things coming at us from all angles and we don't know when and we don't know where," added Cpl Burnett.

Cpl Simon Cooper, 33, of the Royal Signals, agreed: "I am a bit nervous. In early 2003, it was war fighting. It was a definite job to do. Late 2003 was more of a Bosnia, more routine. But now it is a hot Northern Ireland, that sort of uncertainty."

As they trained in the snow in Germany last week, the soldiers were aware of mounting calls to bring the troops home. Many patently agree with the sentiment - but they state simply when asked, that opinions are a luxury they cannot afford - but others disagree.

"A lot of us are worried. But for the guys we have lost, we have got to make a difference. I would rather do another 10 tours than pull out too soon and watch it collapse," said Cpl Tony Bramham, the 1st Battalion, The Light Infantry, a quarter of whom will be going back for the third time with 10 returning for a fourth tour.

Cpl Bramham, 25, whose first child was born just weeks ago, added: "If people back home could see the good going on, it would help."

Many insist they always knew they were "in it for the long haul" and console themselves that at least this time, they have a feel for the country. Sgt Jim Liddy, 35, said: "There will be people in the battalion who don't want to go and try every trick in the book to get out of it but 99 per cent of us believe we have got a job to do."

The deaths of three British soldiers in the past week, bringing the total to 101, could not have come at a worse time for families.

Cpl Cooper, who leaves behind eight and 12-year-old sons, explained: "The eldest is quite aware. Last time, kids on the estate where we were kept saying 'Your dad is going to die' and that has stuck with him. There have been a couple of nights of crying."

Pte Gareth Jones, 25, who got married at Christmas, added: "We decided to get married before I went for the third time. It made more sense than waiting until I got back. My wife will have a lot more rights if something happened to me. None of us live in a dream. We know what could happen to us."

Brigadier James Everard is adamant his men are eager to get to Iraq and do a job of stabilising the country. But ask his men what they are most looking forward to and one response emanates from most mouths: "Getting back."