Monday, December 8, 2008

Soldiers swamp militias in Basra's marshes

Hidden among the reeds and tall grass lining the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway to the north of Basra, Iraqi insurgents thought they had the perfect location to launch rocket attacks at the Contingency Operating Base (COB). But British troops have taken to the water to dry up the dwindling militia threat.

Facing a losing battle against the superior firepower of the armoured vehicles they encountered in the city centre, the militiamen in Basra changed tactics and unleashed wave after wave of aerial bombardments from their marshy hideouts.

The attacks peaked in 2007 at more than 15 each day, unfortunately claiming coalition casualties along the way. But while they were partially hidden from the advances of Challenger Two tanks, the enemy fighters had not banked on the Army unleashing its strength via the water.

Using flat-bottomed mark six assault boats, troops have been dominating the waterways around Leaf Island - the area most commonly used as a firing point by insurgents - and have all but stopped the threat of indirect fire (IDF).

The basic vessels, manned over the last six months by an 11-strong troop of sappers from 32 Engineer Regiment, have been delivering dismounted soldiers from 9th/12th Royal Lancers and the 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to previously hard-to-reach locations.

And the results speak for themselves. Since setting up a forward operating base (FOB) on the banks of the Shatt-Al-Arab three months ago, the COB has suffered just one rocket attack, which originated from the city.

During a break from patrols at the newest waterside location, FOB Oxford, Warrant Officer Class 2 James Rickett, 9th/12th Royal Lancers, said:

"We needed to be able to get out onto the ground and dominate the waterways quickly."We have been in two FOBs which have been glorified hides with very low-level living conditions, but that has allowed us to have the effect we needed to have.

"The waterways are now our main focus. Dominating them means we can stop any lethal aid, interact with the local population to get intelligence and also get the Iraqi Army involved in the area.
"Touch wood, it's been very successful. As with everything else it's another part of a larger puzzle, but I like to think we have had a big effect because the IDF has reduced.

"The deployment of the assault boats does not mark the first use of Basra's waterways on Operation Telic. Bigger craft including the combat support boat and rigid raider have been deployed to police the larger channels found in and around the city centre. Because both vessels feature prominent hulls which would have struggled to negotiate the shallower, narrower stretches of water around Leaf Island, the sappers were asked to bring the smaller mark six assault boat to theatre.

With its flat bottom, simple operation and low profile, the craft has been a revelation in helping to deliver troops to previously unchartered areas:

"Using them allows us to get the dismounts into areas that would otherwise have been out of reach," said Troop Commander Lieutenant Andy Bostock, 32 Engineer Regiment."They are also more covert than having helicopters bombing in and out of the area."We used to do 36-hour stints on the water before returning to the COB, but since the construction of the FOBs they have been out longer and have had a massive impact in stopping IDF.

"The Lancers, who have been accompanied on patrols by 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers snipers as well as search dogs, had the chance to highlight the effectiveness of the boats during the heat of the summer.While out on patrol, the soldiers were about to sit down for a cup of tea with Leaf Island residents when a message over the radio warned of an imminent rocket attack from a nearby location.

Using the boats to reach the area, a troop led by Sergeant Jason Mawhinney, 9th/12th Royal Lancers, discovered the deadly munition with the timer still attached.

The explosive ordnance disposal team was called and three more rockets were found and destroyed, further showcasing the value of having easy access to the island:

"There is no way we would have been able to get there in time if it wasn't for the boats," said Sgt Mawhinney, adding that the operation took place in temperatures of up to 56 degrees and 85 per cent humidity, causing seven soldiers to go down with heat exhaustion.

"They [the boats] got us to the point of origin quickly and provided an outer cordon as well."
As big an impact as the boats have made on stopping the movement of lethal aid, they have also allowed the British Army to engage with previously untouched waterside communities.

Projects to build everything from football pitches to health centres have ingratiated the water-borne soldiers with the population, many of whom wave enthusiastically from the banks as the boats pass by. And by stopping the militia from using Leaf Island as a firing point, the soldiers have also helped local fishermen boost their business:

"They are very happy with us because they can actually fish at night now," explained Second Lieutenant George McCrea, 32 Engineer Regiment.

"Before they had people telling them to move on because it wasn't safe and they would have to pack up by 1800."Now they can have lights on their boats after dark and stay out until the early hours of the morning.

"The use of boats on a day-to-day basis has been something of a culture shock for soldiers used to providing an armoured infantry capability.But with rocket attacks fast becoming a distant memory and Basra's rural population enjoying a freedom impossible to imagine when the militias had free reign over the marshes, the Lancers are happy to have utilised their versatility:

"We have been well out of role considering the fact that we are normally formation reconnaissance," said WO2 Rickett."But the success we have had here highlights the strength of the Army - we can turn our hands to anything."

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