Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Cambs man who helped make Basra safe

A homecoming parade next month will welcome the Royal Anglian Regiment - known as The Poachers - back from their second tour of Iraq. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Browne from Little Paxton, told ANGELA SINGER how different Basra was from the regiment's first blistering tour in 2006 to when it left a calm city in November 2008.

IN 2006 a mission to arrest one man in Basra (whose identify can still not be revealed) involved 24 armoured vehicles and 400 soldiers from the British Army.

Lieutenant Colonel Simon Browne was involved in the action.

"We went to the house and the bloke had done a runner. We had the helicopters out and we were there for 45 minutes fighting with the local militia in the street.

"The irony was that we did get the man in the end but he turned out to be the wrong person."

At this time the British Army in Basra was under siege. Lt Col Brown, 41, a former Kimbolton School pupil who trained at Sandhurst, said: "It was pretty dreadful. We were staying in Basra Palace, the former palace of Saddam Hussein and it was rocketed four or five times a day.

"There was one occasion when we were attacked by 47 missiles in 24 hours. Every time we went out of the gate to get supplies, we had to fight our way in and fight our way out."

When the regiment returned, two years on, in May 2008 - staying there until November - their mission was as different as the atmosphere in the city. This time the Poachers were training the Iraqi Army which was in charge of the city after defeating the militia.

"There has been a huge transformation. The Iraqi Prime Minister (Jawad al-Maliki) had realised that 80 per cent of the wealth of Iraq lies in Basra - that's where the oil is and it is critical for the country's future.

"The Iraqi Army went into the city and pushed the militia aside.

"We realised that there was no need for big groups of British soldiers so we formed small groups and embedded ourselves in the Iraqi Army as mentors. They knew they needed help.

"When we first got there, they had had a long battle with the militia - a trained army can always win a guerrilla war, what is difficult is maintaining the victory."

In two years the atmosphere had changed to another extreme, says Lt Col Browne.

"I went back to the same part of town, sitting in a Ford pick-up truck with a fellow officer and I was not even wearing my helmet.

"I went to the mosque along with hundreds of Iraqis to attend a funeral and I was treated as a guest of honour. I was treated as a guest of honour 24 hours a day for seven months - where before we needed 400 soldiers, often there were now just four of us."

This time, the regiment's mission was to help the Iraqi Army keep law and order and facilitate the rebuilding of Basra - a task that proved to be impossible in 2006.

"It was like Germany after the Second World War - if you don't allow anyone connected with the old regime to get involved, then you have very few people with any experience.

"I knew how to get NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and charities to do the work - but they will only work in Iraq it if it is safe enough."

Lt Col Browne was involved with an important leap forward for Basra, helping to place a contract that allowed $1.5million of repairs to a major power station.

"On the previous tour, we were lucky to get as much as a school repainted."

Now he has completed his two and a half-year tour, and after 28 years in the Army, he says with a sigh that he will now be consigned to a desk job, based near Salisbury assisting with matters of personnel.

But he says Basra is now restored as a safe city and the British Army's mission in that area is nearing completion.

"Women are walking about in western clothes, wearing make-up, going about arm in arm with their partners.

"Iraq has a secular culture, similar to Turkey - people drink alcohol there. One officer said it was safer than Manchester - he was criticised for that but he does have a point.

"After the war people supported the militia but then they saw that they were driven by the fundamentalists. They were used to a secular society, they had given the militia a chance but the Iraqi Army is popular in society and when they stepped up, people thought thank God - they didn't want women murdered and people killed for listening to western music."

Lt Col Browne, who is married with two sons aged 11 and eight, and a daughter aged five, said: "The Iraqis love the British - the Iraqi Army was formed by the British and it is a close copy of it. They say that the British as very good at making friends of their enemies and it's true."

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