Basra: The soldiers' tales

A sense of relief tinged with loss as troops reflect on a brutal campaign
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The Independent Online

The convoys from Basra Palace were lined up outside the airport yesterday, their dusty armour punched and dented by rocket-propelled grenades and bullets in the months of ferocious firefights in the "ambush alleys" of the city.

The 550 soldiers who had withdrawn from the one remaining British base in Basra to the airbridge, the last post for UK troops before the final departure from Iraq, were tired and reflective. There had already been mortar rounds fired at their new home, but it was nothing compared with what they had been facing, and most had not even noticed the attack.

The soldiers of the 4 Rifles Battle Group spoke for the first time yesterday about their night-time evacuation from the palace and also how, for five months, they had been living under a state of siege with attacks around the clock and patrols being hit by roadside bombs.

After their experience, the vast aridness of the airport, with its comparative security, air conditioning and showers was a welcome respite. Cpl Frank Taylor, a 29-year-old from Fiji, said: "This actually feels like a holiday. I am actually quite relaxed. We have been through some pretty difficult times, and, yes, I have been scared.

"I remember once a group of Bulldogs [armoured vehicles] came under fire. I dived under one of them and there were rockets and mortars landing all around us. I saw something roll by, I thought it was a tyre, but then I saw it was the tailfin of a mortar. That was pretty close."

There was a degree of bitterness among some soldiers that many in Britain appeared to have forgotten about the men and women they had sent off to this highly unpopular war.

Cpl Leigh Pool, 28, from Bedfordshire, said: "We are soldiers and we do what we are ordered to do. But it does seem sad that there is so little news about people getting killed here."

Lt-Col Patrick Sanders, the commanding officer of the 4 Rifle Battle Group, had the task of planning the withdrawal. Despite a declaration by British officials of faith in Iraqi security forces, it was decided that the Iraqi police, deeply infiltrated by Shia militias, should not be allowed access to the palace. Instead, a Palace Protection Group, drawn from outside Basra, has been trained by the UK forces.

The withdrawal from the palace has become a highly contentious event, and is seen as a symbolic parting of the ways between the UK and the US over the war. Gordon Brown has promised to meet Britain's responsibilities in Iraq, but told President George Bush at his Camp David retreat in July that the US would not have a veto over when Britain withdraws from southern Iraq. Mr Brown wants to shift British forces from Iraq to what is seen as a more winnable – and less unpopular – struggle in Afghanistan, which he has described as the "front line against terrorism".

Lt-Col Sanders had spent four years in Baghdad when his father was a British military attaché there in the 1970s. He had returned after the war and served with the Americans in the Iraqi capital. "There are issues here which are extremely difficult," he said. "But the fact remains that we are told by the Iraqi commanders that our presence in the city was inciting attacks, so, under the circumstances, it is right that we withdrew. The planning had to be carefully organised. I was reassured by the commander of the protection force.

"It has always been our intention to hand over security to the Iraqis. It is not our job to stay here as foreign troops against their wishes, so I believe we have taken the best decision possible. I would also like to think that what was achieved at Basra Palace had restored some of the reputation of the British forces which had been damaged by mistakes by a very few people."

The difference in emphasis between the UK and the US has never been so marked. While the US has poured troops into the "surge" in Baghdad and central areas of the country, British officials are adamant that the presence of foreign troops is simply encouraging more violence.

The Iranian influence, say officials, is "not all malign" and the end of the occupations would help turn Iraqis against Iranians seeking hegemony.

The British forces say they have not been defeated, but they have learnt, the hard way, not to outstay their welcome.

Lt-Col Patrick Sanders

Commanding officer, 4 rifles battle group, in charge of basra palace

We had known for a while that we had to leave Basra Palace, but it was a hugely difficult matter with a lot of political complexities. We decided on a night move and it was broadly successful. We had one IED [improvised explosive device] and three soldiers received minor injuries.

We have faced a lot of action while we were at Basra Palace and our guys have acted with immense courage. I could have stayed on there for another six months, we would have been able to defend ourselves, and killed a lot of people in the process, but what would that have achieved?

Some of the militias fighting us are nationalists and they do not like foreign troops in their country, and that is probably a healthy thing. Ninety per cent of the violence in Basra City was directed at foreign forces and by us leaving that violence should go down, so it was probably time for us to leave.

But there are also a lot of thugs among the militias and I am glad that British forces played a part in showing the local population that one can stand up to them. Was the war in Iraq justified? It is too early to tell. If Iraq manages to be at peace with itself and its neighbours then it would have been worthwhile. If that doesn't happen, questions will be asked.

Lance Corporal Leigh Pool

Age 28, Bedfordshire

We were getting attacked every day and most nights at the palace for week after week. They were getting quite good at hitting targets, but after a while you have just got to live with it and get on with what you have to do. Some of us were called out on operations as well, and then we faced a lot of small-arms fire as well. We simply did not hang around anywhere on foot.

On the night of the pullout, I was one of those sent out early to secure the route. We were out for the whole night – it was pretty tiring.

What makes me a bit angry is that there have been soldiers dying out here and people, and there is so little notice taken back at home. It seems people have forgotten about the Iraq war. The thing is that it may be old news back home, but this is still going on and we are doing what we were sent out to do. It is a shame that some of these losses are not being recognised.

Rifleman Dwayne McIntyre

Age 25, North London

When we were under regular attack, you cannot really relax at all. At least at the palace, we had proper buildings where we could take shelter. When we got ambushed at the PJCC (a central police base), we were out in the open and you feel the danger.

Corporal Lucas Farrell

Age 23, Liverpool

[One night] we had left Basra Palace on a supply convoy to the PJCC in Bulldogs, Warriors and military trucks. As we were unloading the supplies in the base, we came under attack from mortars and rockets. It was pretty fierce. An officer who had been briefing us one minute was then killed. We were stunned, like, shocked.

But then there was no more time to think about that. We were told that they [the militias] would know when we went out and that they would be waiting for us. And that's what happened. As we left, there was firing from all sides. We were getting repeatedly ambushed, they were hitting the vehicles [with] small arms, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. What they were trying to do was hit the ones in the rear and separate the convoy and trap some of us. There was a lot, a lot of shooting. I don't know how much was fired in total, I was using a GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) and I myself fired around 600 rounds.

We drove straight back to Basra Palace with the officer's body – then you thought about what had happened, and it was very sad.