Monday, March 16, 2009

Basra: A momentous task for soldiers from Northern Ireland

By Lesley-Anne Henry in Basra

Up to 30 soldiers from Northern Ireland are among the last British troops left in Iraq.
The soldiers from the Queen's Royal Hussars are almost half way through one of their most important and historic tours to date.

The Germany-based armoured regiment, a third of which is made up of men from Northern Ireland, are among the last British troops in Iraq and it is to these men that a major responsibility falls — ensuring control of the country reaches safe and capable hands when it is transferred from coalition forces to the fledgling national army in just a few months.

For some of the troops who were part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and returned again in 2006, this is their third tour but for all the soldiers involved in the operation known as Telic 13, this is the most momentous.

The QRH troops, who are deployed as part of the 20th Armoured Brigade, flew into Iraq on December 1 after a 10-day acclimatisation course in Kuwait.

Since their arrival they have been scattered across three locations in the southern oil rich province of Basra — Basra air station, the main coalition base, Umm Qsa, the region's biggest port and Az Zubayr a strategically important town 20km from Basra.

Their mission includes providing protection and guarding the Iraqi navy at the port.
QRH Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) are also concentrating their efforts on training and mentoring the 14th division of the Iraqi army, offering support such as basic soldiering skills, conducting vehicle or house searches and urban or rural foot patrols.

The security situation has changed since the QRH's last visit in 2006 when they were deployed across Al Amarah Province to conduct counter-smuggling operations close to the Iran-Iraq border.

On January 1, British forces handed control of Basra airport, its main military base in the south, to Iraqi officials. Most British troops have also withdrawn from Basra city.

QRH Commanding Officer Chris Coles said: “I think some expected a moment of déjà vu as they returned to familiar haunts, but the situation is radically different — and better — this time. The Iraqi army has taken a strong and courageous lead in giving the province real security and we are very much working in support rather than taking the lead.”

Captain Tam Biswas added: “The mentoring role involves key team seniors or individuals tasked with the departments and the Iraqi in charge of that battalion for the brigade will spend the whole three or four months teaching them how to run various tasks. The Arabic culture is based on relationships and if you show that you are on their side then they will work with you.”

In 2003 former Prime Minister Tony Blair sent 45,000 British troops to help the US topple Saddam Hussein. Today there are only around 4,100 UK soldiers in Iraq.

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