Staying on: The last Brits in Iraq

Most people think Britain’s military involvement in Iraq is over. But for the forgotten Royal Navy and Royal Marine teams that remain in the country, the truth is very different indeed

Terri Judd
Saturday 13 February 2010 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


His forehead furrowed with concentration, Sajad grips the wheel of the Defender twin-engined boat as he spins it into a perfectly executed turn at speed, sending out a swell of seawater and spray. Triumphantly, he looks to his boyhood friend from Basra, equally resplendent in his new Iraqi Navy uniform, and the pair share the laugh of lads who have just discovered an exciting toy.

Royal Navy Lieutenant Simon Preece and his interpreter – a moustachioed bear of a man who long ago swapped the uniform of an Iraqi Colonel for a cosy cardigan – watch with paternal patience, forgiving the momentary lapse of concentration in the training.

As the four men amicably jostle for space in the confined cabin of the tiny boat, it seems inconceivable that just a few short years ago they would have been deadly enemies.

To many in the UK, the Iraq war is now simply a slice of narrative to be debated by lawyers and ministers at the Chilcot Inquiry. With the focus entirely on events in Afghanistan, few realise that a Royal Navy and Royal Marine team remains in the country – the last Brits left behind. And in a symmetrical twist of history, they are right back where the conflict started for UK troops.

If you glance across the choppy waters, the winter sun shimmering benignly on its peaks, the nearby shores of the Al-Faw peninsula provide a sombre reminder of a very different moment in time. It was near here in the early hours of 21 March 2003 – a stygian night of sand-storms made worse by the smoke of burning oil fires – that the first eight of 179 British servicemen and women to perish in the war died when the US Marines Corps Sea Knight helicoptor they were travelling in crashed with no survivors. For this is where UK forces crossed into Iraq in 2003 – the Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade fought bitterly to secure the country's only deep-water port, Umm Qasr.

It may be ancient history to younger Marines, many of whom were schoolboys at the time, but Sergeant Major Nick Wakem recalls those days with absolute clarity – including the "thousand-yard stare" of his exhausted troops. He still has a copy of the leaflets handed out to locals, carrying a picture of Tony Blair on which were written the words: "We won't stay a day longer than we need to". "I remember leaving Iraq the first time, looking back at a country in total darkness," the 43-year-old recalls. "We had trashed the place. If someone had said you will be back here in seven years' time training the Iraqis I would not have believed them."

His return has proved a poignant reminder of the loss of his old friend Warrant Officer Second Class Mark Stratford, who was killed in the helicopter crash. Today in Umm Qasr, the "Mother of Castles" and what is said to be the site of Alexander the Great's landing in Mesopotamia, he works alongside Iraqis who also lost friends and family when US and UK forces pulverised their navy. But any simmering resentment they may feel has had to be shelved for now. "When the Iraqis surrendered, one of the things that sticks in my mind is that we had to bury the dead. The local people turned up at the gates and asked for the bodies back, so we dug them up again. It has stayed with me – very much so. It is one of the reasons I am back in Iraq, to sort that out in my mind," explains the Sergeant Major.

Yet his return, along with 70 Royal Navy and Marine colleagues, has largely been ignored in this country. While unsolicited mail to forces in Afghanistan saw a 63 per cent increase this Christmas, the last men left in Iraq did not receive a single parcel from anyone bar close family and friends. And it has not escaped the team that the acronym ITAM (Iraqi Training Advisory Mission) is Arabic for "orphans".

"There is a lack of awareness that we have come back. The main focus is Afghanistan – rightly so, as it is a much bigger operation. But we are still here and we seem to be forgotten," explains the 27-year-old Army Intelligence Corps linguist Sergeant Sam Belshaw, who works with the interpreters who still risk life and limb to help the British and American joint operation.

While the threat level in southern Iraq has diminished dramatically since 2008, when Operation Charge of the Knights drove the militia from Basra, roadside bombs are still found on the main supply route into Umm Qasr along with RKG-3 anti-tank grenades. Just to the north of here, in Basra, the Americans who took over the base from UK forces still face weekly mortar and rocket attacks.

"It is a benign environment – with the possibility of going to the other end of the spectrum in seconds – and that is in the back of everyone's mind," says Captain Chris Emptage, the officer in charge of a team of Royal Marines from 42 Commando.

"It is hard for some of our families back home because they see the trouble [bombs going off] in Baghdad and it makes them worried while you are away," adds Navy Chief Petty Officer Colin Harrison.

All this is despite the news that on 1 January this year, General David Petraeus attended a ceremony to rename the "Multi-National Forces – Iraq" as the "United States Forces – Iraq" in recognition of the fact that they were the only troops still deployed in the country.

"I think these guys get far too little praise for what they do," insists US Admiral Scott Jones, who has broken tradition by wearing a Union Flag on his uniform in solidarity with his British colleagues. "We each bring something a little different to the table. The UK has a long and enduring relationship with this region, much longer than the US, a rich legacy that helps us in cultural understanding."

The confusion has arisen because British forces ended combat operations in Iraq on 30 April 2009, withdrawing by the end of July. But the decision was made to leave behind a team to train up the Iraqi Navy. Their position was initially fraught, with the Iraqi government refusing to sign a mandate for their continued presence. Last summer, the Royal Navy – after six years of British military sacrifice in Iraq – was forced to make an undignified retreat to Kuwait and then home to wait on 24-hour notice for any call to return.

In November, just as the military appeared to have written the project off as a lost cause and was preparing equipment to be shipped home, the Presidency Council of Iraq finally ratified the agreement and they were told to return. "We had invested six years of blood and treasure [money] in Basra and we had committed ourselves to reconstruction," explains Brigadier Max Marriner, the defence attaché at the embassy in Baghdad. "There was a very clear political drive to keep this going forward. We knew we wanted to have an engagement that was enduring."

"Iraq is yesterday's war – good," he continues. "What we have here is a success story. The Chilcot Inquiry is looking at something different [the events leading up to the conflict]. I don't connect it. We learnt a lesson. The Iraqi perspective is that we didn't have a reconstruction phase [planned] but we developed one fairly quickly."

It is also without question that this is an area drenched not only in blood, but oil. The new Iraqi Navy will be tasked with protecting territorial waters as well as two giant platforms 60 miles out to sea, through which 90 per cent of Iraq's oil – 2.4 million barrels a day worth $180m at today's prices – is pumped out. The pipelines to the platforms are the arteries through which Iraq's life-blood pumps and remain a key terrorist target. It was here that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps took 15 Royal Navy and Marine personnel hostage for almost two weeks in 2007.

The country has recently awarded contracts to foreign oil giants, so keen to get a slice of the pie for the first time in more than 30 years that they have been willing to accept fees far below their original bids, as well as the continuing threat of sabotage. "As a senior American politician said, 'If this was not about oil in 2003, it certainly is now,'" concedes Brigadier Marriner.

The aim is to raise production from 2.5 million barrels a day to 12.5 million, equivalent to the amount produced by Saudi Arabia. But this will undoubtedly lead to tensions with Iraq's neighbours. There are reports that Iraq's oil reserves, the third largest in the world at around 115 billion barrels, may turn out to be even bigger than Iran's. And already there is talk within the oil cartel Opec that it will have to reduce production quotas of other members if it is to accommodate Baghdad.

Only recently, Iranian troops briefly invaded the al-Fakkah oil field in the southern Maysan province on the disputed border. According to the Iraqi government, this was their third incursion in a month.

The Khawr Abd Allah waterway is littered with the wrecks of past conflicts, including the 1980 Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait 10 years later. In the British naval base, an impromptu "memorial" of artillery shells and a shattered shelter provide reminders of the 2003 invasion. A decaying wooden dhow, leaning forlornly on the dock, has been nicknamed Saddam's Spy Vessel.

Negotiating his way through the construction work around the port, Captain Andy Aspden – the Royal Navy commanding officer – makes himself heard above the rhythmic banging as he enthuses about some of the 29 new infrastructure projects. Half a billion dollars has already been invested in the Iraqi naval base.

In five years, the new Iraqi Navy has gone from scratch to a force of 2,200 sailors and marines, with more due to be recruited this year. By 2011, it will have around 60 vessels – each one christened in the traditional Iraqi way by slaughtering a sheep on the dock and smearing its blood on the bow – from small, fast Defender-class boats armed with general-purpose machine guns to four large patrol ships armed with 30mm guns.

But a tough deadline looms. The British and US team has until the American withdrawal date at the end of 2011 to get the Iraqi Navy to a stage where it can protect an asset that could turn a poor war-torn country into a rich and powerful player on the world stage.

Conceding that there were frustrations in dealing with the country's military bureaucracy, Captain Aspden praises the progress made by the Iraqis: "There is a huge push to build the new infrastructure in the next two years. Will it be finished by the time we leave? Definitely. There is no point in putting something up there so we can walk away and watch it crumble. We are creating a navy, not one in our own image but one that is self-sustaining. People who have served here can leave with a sense of satisfaction."

Standing on a Defender boat so tiny that dozens of them would fit on the deck of his next posting – the Royal Navy's new destroyer HMS Dauntless – Lieutenant Preece insists that the opportunity to work with Iraqis has been a refreshing change, with their warmth only matched by their wicked sense of humour. "It has been a lot of fun to see the guys coming through the course. They are all very good and receptive," he says, adding: "One hurt his ankle and still kept coming despite doctor's orders."

Nearby, Sajad, a 23-year-old trainee, returns the compliment. "I like the British," he says. "They are professional, good people. They are very kindly."

Fresh from two years' training at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, Lieutenant Atif Aljbara echoes his colleagues' earnest desire to move on from years of turmoil. "It is important for our people that we can protect our country," he tells me.

"These people have had much trauma in their lives, yet they appear to be optimistic about the future," explains Lieutenant Commander Bill Lauste. "All the Iraqis I have met in Umm Qasr seem to be genuinely pleased that we and the Americans are here – including the senior officer whose patrol craft was sunk by a Royal Navy aircraft [during the invasion]."

On the dockside, Warrant Officer Second Class Ronnie Cave casts an eye over a gleaming workshop, pointing out that just two months ago it was an oily graveyard of ancient parts, hoarded by a nation used to sanctions. "When we got off the helicopter we wanted to hit the ground running," he explains. "Then we realised we had to come and drink tea first, build relationships. There are a few of the Iraqis who are not 100 per cent about us being here but they are few and far between. Most are really enthusiastic."

But with their largest asset being a patrol ship, this is not a force designed to defend against invasion. There seems little doubt that after the withdrawal date of 2011, warships from the previous coalition will remain close at hand. Only last week, it was revealed that President Obama's administration had quietly increased the capability of land- and sea-based missile defences in the Gulf region.

"We stand to support the Government of Iraq and its people. I am sure they can look to us for support in the future. We will be there to promote security and stability in the region," says US Admiral Jones. After all, the senior naval officer insists, they have a responsibility to ensure the "resurrection" of a navy destroyed in 2003. "You broke it, you bought it," he smiles.

Meanwhile, the team works with little recognition. Along with another unit working at the Iraqi Army officers' staff college in Baghdad, they are the invisible ones.

"It is a bit sad to think that the rest of the world sitting in the UK doesn't even know that we are here," explains Marine Danny Cole, age 25. "People should know. We are still contributing to what we started out to do back in 2003, helping the Iraqis back on their feet."

When they do finally return home, there will be no parades but – perhaps – a sense of satisfaction that they saw the green shoots of progress in a place that is guaranteed a place in history.

Pointing to a giant hangar on the horizon, beyond the barbed-wire fence that marks the border with Kuwait, Marine Cole adds: "Over there is where they [42 Commando] waited to come in a few years ago. Attitudes have changed so much. Everyone was so war-y then... Now we are ready to leave."

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