Brits having a rough time in Basra

Brits having a rough time in Basra

August 10, 2007

Fighting for pride as pressure mounts on beleaguered troops
Anthony Loyd

The soldiers lead a semi-nocturnal existence between guard shifts and operations. The morning alarm is usually a salvo of incoming mortar fire. Almost every man smokes and few could tell you what day it is, let alone the date.

They have already suffered the worst casualty rate of any British unit in Iraq and yet are not even halfway into their tour.

They feel abandoned by the receding tide of British public and political support for their war. They know that if they die, their death will go barely noticed by the media at home beyond perhaps a paragraph or two in a newspaper or a few sentences at the back end of the Six O’Clock News.

Welcome to Basra Palace at the tail-end of a lost war. With only a few weeks left until the last soldier withdraws from the base, the 650 men of the Basra City battlegroup, average age 20, fight on with little but their esprit de corps and pride.

“We didn’t ask to come here,” remarked Captain Robert Basset, sitting in the back of his Bulldog armoured vehicle as it rumbled out of the palace gates into the foetid, dusty night.

“We were sent here by our country and our Government. We are making incredible efforts and sacrifices. Yet sometimes it feels like our country and Government act as though they wish we weren’t here at all.”

The pressure on the small battlegroup, who lost their first man on day 1 of their deployment, has come from every direction.

If the insurgents of al-Mahdi Army, known among the soldiers as “the Jam” after their Arabic name Jaish al-Mahdi, are the principal adversary, the climate comes a close second.

The daytime temperature can reach a brain-stewing 52C (125F). Boiling in their armoured vehicles, laden with a helmet, flak jacket, weapon, and a full load of ammunition, each rifleman is carrying between 35lb (16kg) and 50lb (23kg) , sometimes more. Night conditions can be even worse.

During one recent night-time operation a moisture-laden wind came up from the south, multiplying the humidity factor. As a result, the men’s sweat could not evaporate and their bodies’ natural cooling mechanisms failed.

In the back of the Warrior armoured fighting vehicles, notorious for their poor air-conditioning, the temperature reached 72C. Commanders began to babble and slur over the radios; some soldiers tore off their clothes, vomiting and delirious.

Over a period of several hours, much of it exchanging fire with insurgents, 15 men became heat casualties and required evacuation: wounded men can be sustained in the back of an armoured vehicle, yet keep a heat casualty inside the very environment that injured him and he may die.

The capabilities of the soldiers’ human enemy are lethal enough. Two years ago al-Mahdi Army was still considered an inept, ill-equipped and amateur force. British units who clashed with it elsewhere in southern Iraq killed its fighters in their droves, with few casualties of their own.

Yet now, with the influx of support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s al-Quds division, the Jam has has been transformed. It shells Basra Palace every day with newly made mortar rounds or rockets date-marked 2007.

(Note: Bold & Underline, is my doing! T_W)

Hundreds of these munitions have hit the palace in the past two months alone and memories of previous units who once patrolled the city in soft hats and berets are now a world away.

Outside the palace walls, al-Mahdi Army’s ability to identify British patrols moving within the city and lay down combination ambushes using roadside bombs, rockets and small-arms fire has improved by the week.

Its bomb arsenal includes state-of-the-art explosively formed projectiles which can penetrate British armour. And the frequency of attacks has worsened. After the last Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomat hightailed it out of the palace in February, the graph of violence against the soldiers has risen in a mounting series of spikes.

Since the Basra City battlegroup, comprising of a core element of two companies from the 4th Battalion The Rifles with a respective company each from the Royal Welsh Regiment and the Irish Guards, arrived in May, attacks have escalated even more.

The palace’s isolated location has also served the insurgents. Built by Saddam Hussein in 1990 at the southern end of the city, buttressing the Shatt al-Arab waterway, there are only three viable resupply routes for logistics convoys to reach the base from the main British camp at the airport on Basra’s outskirts. Hugely vulnerable, all three pass directly through the city.

The requirements of food, water, fuel, ammunition and spare vehicle parts ensure that these resupply convoys are vast — sometimes more than 100 vehicles. Some of the civilian lorry drivers involved in the operation get drunk to summon the courage to make the run. And al-Mahdi Army attacks the convoys from the moment they get into the city right up to the palace gates.

“Last time we did it the convoy encountered 25 IEDs [roadside bombs],” recalled Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Sanders, 4 Rifles, the battlegroup’s commanding officer. “We were fixed. We didn’t have the intiative. The Jam see the trucks form up, they know the routes in, they know the routes out. It’s a f****** nightmare.”

More than 50 per cent of the battlegroup’s casualties have occurred as they secure the routes for these convoys — a cruel irony that has not been lost on the soldiers. “Losing blokes just to resupply ourselves is a different kind of loss,” admitted Corporal David Guntert, 36, one of 4 Rifles’ longest-serving soldiers. “Sometimes it feels like you lost them just to bring in a loaf of bread or a toilet roll.”

Under such duress, the question “Is it worth it?” inevitably haunts many of the soldiers as they rest in their accommodation blocks, stacked in bunks, up to 24 men to a room.

But there comes a moment when the questioning stops.

“The Iraqi police are corrupt,” Corporal Guntert explained. “Their army isn’t ready yet. Which leaves us. We’ve fought hard and lost some fantastic blokes. For what? We’ll probably go home questioning, ‘What was it all for?’

“As soldiers it is our right to tick. But the blokes would be gutted if we were prevented from going out on ops. As soon as we’ve got our orders, got our kit and weapons and walk over to the vehicles, the debate stops and we just get on with it.”

One Rifleman from 4 Rifles said: “We can debate it all we want but at the end of the day it’s about pride.”

The battlegroup’s commanders have been at pains to ensure that their continued operations, designed to keep up pressure on al-Mahdi Army until the moment the palace is handed over to an Iraqi military unit, are carefully balanced between what can be gained and lost. With nine dead and forty wounded, each of the battlegroup’s casualties has hit the officers as hard as the men.

Immediately after losing the soldiers for whom they are responsible, officers have struggled to maintain their composure but some commanders admitted that the private aftermath left them racked with a devastating sense of grief.

There has been more than a little weeping in Basra Palace. Among their dead the battlegroup has lost a 48-year-old major, an infantryman who had served in every rank from rifleman up; one of twin brothers, both serving with 4 Rifles, in Basra, who was killed by a bomb on their birthday; and three soldiers killed in a single bomb attack. One company alone has now suffered a 10 per cent casualty rate.

The battlegroup’s senior non-commissioned officers have dealt with the grim circumstances in their own inimitable style.

“I’ve got enough on my mind with all these f****** dead bodies without carrying another one out just because the stupid f***** wasn’t wearing his body armour and helmet,” a 4 Rifles Company Serjeant Major told his riflemen, extolling the need for them to wear flak jackets and helmets at every opportunity.

Yet even they profess to a softer side.

“We got hit by an IED which lifted up the Bulldog nose first and threw the driver through his hatch 25 metres back up the road,” recalled Company Serjeant Major Rod Poulter. “I jumped out, saw a body with British uniform on. He had burns to his face and hands, a compound fracture and dislocated foot, but he had pulled his 9mm pistol out and was lying there firing away to protect himself. We got him back.

“I spoke to him on the phone a couple of days ago. He said, ‘Hello Serjeant-Major, battle buddy’. It meant a lot to hear him call me that.”

If anything however, these losses seem only to have united the unit.

History is unlikely to record the battlegroup’s last weeks in the palace as much more than a footnote to a failed political strategy. The soldiers know that they won’t go home to public adulation or a victory parade. The word “Basra” is twinned with “Iraq”, both words that the British public now utter with a wince.

But if the soldiers feel isolated, they say that they have preserved intact their most valuable ally: pride.

“We fight for what soldiers have always fought for,” said Colonel Sanders. “For each other, for our reputation, and because we are professional soldiers. This is the life we chose. The men want to see it out. Not for a prime minister or cause, right or wrong, but for each other.”

One day in Iraq

— Two more British soldiers have died in Iraq, bringing the toll of servicemen killed this week to four. The two men, from the Irish Guards, were killed when a roadside bomb blew up next to their patrol early yesterday morning as they were travelling to the north Rumaila oil fields, west of Basra

— A serviceman killed on Tuesday night has been named as Leading Aircraftman Martin Beard, 20, of No 1 Squadron RAF Regiment. He was shot during a routine patrol north of the British base at Basra airport. The first to die was Private Craig Barber, of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh, on Monday

— All charges against two US Marines — Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt and Captain Randy Stone — accused over the murder of civilians in Haditha have been dropped. Five Marines still face court martial over the alleged massacre in 2005

— Hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims have converged on the Baghdad shrine of the 8th-century Imam Moussa al-Kadhim amid a tight security operation. In past years the pilgrimage has been attacked by Sunni insurgents, and in 2005 about 1,000 people died in a stampede after rumours of a suicide bombing

— The goalkeeper of the Kirkuk football club, Baha Abdul Karim Darweesh, 24, was kidnapped by gunmen north of Baghdad. In a separate incident, militants blew up two bridges just outside Kirkuk

— Three people were killed in a car bombing in southern Baghdad, which also left two others injured
Hi Trip you rubble rouser. Long time no hear. So the Brits are going through a rough patch in Basra. Aren't we all?

(DD slinks away because he knows from past experience that TW will come out swinging.)
Gremlin said:
As usual TW you post something that a lot of us have read already but with no comment attached!
What part of "Brits having a rough time in Basra" in my comment didn't you understand?

Sorry if you read it before, I hadn't and I don't think others had either, since it was dated today! :roll: :wink:
Not here it isn't! It's still 8/10/07 1929 hrs. here! :wink:

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