Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in Basra: Yuletide for Britain's armed forces - Independent

Turkey, presents, and then a screening of 'The Great Escape': Kim Sengupta reports on the troops' final Christmas in Iraq

British troops will wake up on the last Christmas they spend in Iraq to gunfire, this much they already know. This time, however, it will not be the lethal attacks which they had been receiving for much of their five years of the conflict. Gunfire, in this case, is tea laced with whisky served by their officers and senior NCOs – a long-held custom in the armed forces. Then, after a rare free morning for most, it will be a traditional lunch with roast turkey, Christmas pudding and mince pies.

The overwhelming choice of film to watch after the Queen's speech this year is The Great Escape – to celebrate, say the soldiers, the fact that they are due to be back home by the end of July as the UK ends its engagement in the most bitter and controversial war in recent history.

In Iraq, the furthest shipment of Christmas food has been to al-Qurnah where a British unit is mentoring Iraqi forces. The village, 80 miles north-west of Basra, at the confluence of the rivers Tigris and the Euphrates, is the supposed location of the Garden of Eden.

They and other UK troops embedded with Iraqis will be visited by the commander, Major General Andy Salmon, in the course of the day in "Operation Empty Sack"' – so called because he has no presents to give them apart from reassurance that they will be going home soon. In reality there are no shortages of gifts for the troops, not just from friends and families, but also from general members of the public, with some of the parcels addressed to simply "Soldier in Basra" or "British Forces, Iraq".

Away from the rituals of Christmas, the mood among the British troops was this week quiet and reflective. Most of them have done a number of tours in Iraq and seen the fortune of war change from pensive calm in the aftermath of the invasion, to sustained violence, to the current mood of relative peace since the Shia militias who in effect took over Basra were driven out by Iraqi, American and British forces in an operation called Charge of the Knights.

The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment had been deployed four times to the country and took part in fierce fighting against paramilitaries atAl-Amarah, in Maysan province, in 2004 when they took a number of casualties. They are currently based at the Shatt al-Arab Hotel in Basra City, training Iraqi forces.

Sitting under a Christmas tree, Lance Corporal Mathew Bignell, 22, from Southampton, said: "It is difficult to believe that we are having such a quiet Christmas. Up in Al-Amarah, we had action each day, every day.

"We genuinely did not know whether we would survive until the end of the tour. I remember a firefight where bullets were landing just few inches from my feet. We had rockets and mortar rounds landing all around us.

"Now we go out along with the Iraqis and the people are friendly, they come up and talk to you. I must admit I did not think that I would ever see this. But I am very glad that we are leaving when things are getting better. Of course I miss my family at Christmas, but that's the job and they understand that."

Click here for the full article on the Independent website

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