Telegraph Guards suffer the catapult gangs with good humour By Oliver Poole (Filed: 03/02/2005) Children with catapults lurk at most street corners in Maysan province, the most lawless and by far the most dangerous of the four in Iraq under British control. Their idea of fun is to ambush patrolling soldiers by hitting one of the guardsmen providing cover through the top hatch of their armoured Land Rovers. In built-up areas, a rain of bricks and stones can pelt down. The soldiers have glass visors on their helmets to protect them. But most have their own story of the one that got through and a number have the scars on their cheeks to prove it. Yet few are complaining. Last summer the ordnance being directed at British troops was far more deadly. Then a trip into a city such as the state capital, Amarah, would bring with it gunfire as Shia militants, whipped up by the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, rose up across the south. The British HQ in the city was mortared and rocketed almost every day for three weeks. The unit deployed to maintain control, the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, suffered 48 wounded and two fatalities throughout the province as it was attacked 658 times in seven months. Rockets are still occasionally fired at the British main camp near the city but, unlike its predecessor, the troop presently in the province, a 1,000-strong battle group of the Welsh Guards, has not had a single soldier wounded. Part of the reason for that, officers say, is that the fighting in the summer left the local militia with a "bloody nose". "They know how much damage we can do to them and, not surprisingly, they are not so keen on another reminder," said one senior officer. After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the British approach shown to the world was one of soldiers in soft berets riding bicycles through the streets of Basra in an attempt to avoid adopting an antagonistic posture. The lesson of last summer was that by stepping too far back they risked leaving a void that the militia attempted to fill, intelligence experts say. In Maysan every soldier on patrol wears a helmet and bullet-proof vest and any exchanges of firepower are confronted and suppressed. Patrols - both on foot and in vehicles - occur throughout the area to make their presence highly visible. "I don't like the term softly-softly," said Lt Col Ben Bathurst, 40, the Welsh Guards' commanding officer. "Our men are prepared any day to go into full war-fighting mode. Anyone taking us on can expect us to bear down on them with overwhelming force. Here strength is respected." One of his guardsmen, Barry Burnett, 19, summarised operating orders as: "If they shoot at us they know we are going to kill them. They don't like to mess with that." But, officers say, the iron fist is still accompanied by the velvet glove to try to ensure that the knowledge of British military power is accompanied by an understanding of what they are trying to achieve - and, most importantly, that this includes their eventual departure. Lt Col Bathurst, a direct descendant of Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies at the time of Waterloo, embarked on a whirlwind of diplomacy on his arrival in October in which he managed to win the trust of rebels, including Sadr's Mahdi army, and broker a suspension in hostilities. Just as importantly, he worked hard to break down the mistrust between local government officials and the fledgling Iraqi security forces, both police and army, who in some areas were more prone to fire at each other than maintain control. "Officers such as Colonel Ben deal with us in a way the Americans do not," said Riyadh Mahood, the governor of Maysan. "The Americans depend on power, the British are good at politics. That is important as otherwise people not only fear but hate them. And that would not be good news for not only you but us here."