Monday, February 16, 2009
ARMED to the teeth, the “heavy metal” infantrymen from The Rifles leap ashore from Combat Assault Boats. Their target: The insurgents who have dedicated their lives to bringing about the deaths of Our Boys.
The lads from 5th Battalion, The Rifles, have traded in the Warrior armoured vehicles and Challenger 2 main battle tanks in which they usually go into battle for tiny flat-bottomed boats – as they learn new ways to win against the bad guys in Iraq.
Their key task is to stop terrorist teams raining down high explosive rockets on to Basra’s Contingency Operating Base (COB), home to the 4,100 UK troops still here until summer.
Last year Iraqi rocket gangs made our lads’ and lasses’ lives a living hell, with round after round of 107mm rockets crashing down on the base.
Massive and expensive efforts were made to safeguard British troops – cinder block “Baghdad bed” bunks with 4in steel roofs, dinner halls built with 2ft concrete walls and automated machine guns trained to radars to shoot mortars and rockets out of the sky.
But the best answer turned out to be old-fashioned boots on the ground.
The boys live by their old motto – Swift and Bold – touring the waterways and marshlands of southern Iraq in their 30mph Mark Six boats to snuff out the rocket menace.
And they need sharp eyes, too. Rocket gangs patrol these waters disguised as locals, using traditional fishing boats to transport deadly 107mm Katyusha rockets and even more terrifying 240mm anti-ship missiles.
They tee up their evil weapons on sloping ground aimed at the COB, arming them with sophisticated 59-minute timers which were most probably designed in neighbouring Iran.
But now the fight is being taken to the enemy. Our Boys have built Forward Operating Base Oxford – little more than a row of tents on a muddy island but a vital stronghold in the battle to save UK and coalition lives.
The men there live on food-in-a-bag rations, sleep on the floor and go to the toilet in plastic bags.
One of the few leisure options is the collection of weights benches that the lads have put together to work out and build their muscles. They call their home-made gym “Operation Massive”.
Based in the marshlands north of the main base, the lads spend nine days at a time in these very spartan conditions as they patrol the watery countryside, silencing the rockets and mortars.
And their success is measured in one simple statistic – the last major volley of Katyushas hit home six months ago.
Now the enemy, known as the Northern IDF Team – which stands for the up-and-under indirect fire of mortars and rockets – are on the run. And they are the lucky ones.
When asked if any rocketeers had been killed or captured, one source simply told us: “Well, there used to be a Southern IDF Team. But there isn’t one any more.” Lt Mike Foster Vander Elst, 25, told us: “A lot of indirect fire attacks have come from the area to the north, which is pretty sparsely populated.
“We are here to stop that fire happening and we have been very effective."
With Brit forces due to quit the country by the end of July, some of the Rifles have served FOUR tours of duty – starting with the 2003 invasion, through the bad times and now seeing security for ordinary Iraqis improving.
Cpl Mark Calvert, 27, from Durham, said: “This is my third tour here and it does feel a lot different now. It’s a lot
quieter – we haven’t seen any baddies since we’ve been here!”
The boys also work hard to get the locals on side. “Hearts-and-minds patrols” dish out footballs, pens and trendy wristbands to Iraqi children.
We accompanied a patrol to a school where engineers came up with a scheme to bring in water and electricity. If their plan works that’s another 165 six to 14-year-olds with a reason to thank the Brits for coming to Iraq.
And the troops say the cuddly tactics work – villagers’ tip-offs about insurgent activity are now up to 900 a month.
With the British pull-out from Iraq so close, soldiers here are convinced that they have made a difference.
Major General Andy Salmon – the man in charge of UK and US forces in South-East Iraq – told the Daily Star Sunday: “The British people can feel proud of the efforts of everyone out here who stuck it out through thick and thin – even when their friends were killed. They all rolled up their sleeves and got on with it.
“We can see the consequences here of all our work and know that the sacrifices, particularly of the 179 dead and all the wounded, were not in vain.”