Monday, March 23, 2009

Erik Petersen with the British Army in Basra

In the British military's final weeks in Iraq, roads are being built, buildings are being completed, pollution is being cleaned. In the final story in a series on his visit to British troops in Basra, ERIK PETERSEN finds out how completion, and victory, is defined

FOR the combat engineers of the Chilwell-based 170 Infrastructure Support Engineer Group, the end of their time in Iraq is heavy on the "engineer", lighter on the "combat".

One recent day, Lance Corporal Lee Wagner and Sapper Matt Brown were surveying land where a missile had hit a large fuel supply, causing polluting fuel to seep into the ground. Sapper Osbourne Gabriel was designing a new road.

Around the office, combat engineers like Lance Corporal Phil Church and Staff Sergeants Mark Lott and Michael Bebbington worked on or oversaw similar projects.

For Lance Cpl Martin Simpson, the only Territorial Army soldier among the group and a building service engineer in civilian life, the work came naturally.

"The projects I'm working on with these guys require the skills that I use weekly," he said of the work the 170 is doing while attached to the larger 35 Engineers Regiment.

It's the sort of work that makes combat engineers indispensable wherever they go.

"I've been at Chilwell for three years," Lance Cpl Daniel Griffiths said. "As soon as I got there, I went to Afghan. Then Kenya for three months, then back to Afghan, then to Gibraltar, then here."

And while it might not be the most glamorous-sounding side of Army life, it's a huge part of what needs doing as the British complete their mission in Basra and prepare to depart Iraq.

The job is not easy - although as Second Lieutenant Jon Hassain of the 35 Engineers said with a laugh, lots of jobs can be tough. He used to teach physics and PE at Weldon School in Carlton.
"Being in Iraq," he said, "is still easier than trying to teach some teenagers."

If you want to get under the skin of a British soldier in Iraq, suggest that as they leave, their mission remains incomplete. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Buttery, the 35 Engineers' commanding officer, offered a concise rebuke to that.

Months ago, he noted, Gordon Brown stated the British mission as threefold: help facilitate free elections in Iraq, give control of Basra Airport back to Iraqis, and help the Iraqi military reach a battle-ready state.

Lt Col Buttery then ticked through results. Iraqis now run the airport. The last Iraqi election had more than 60 percent turnout, and a quarter of voters were women. ("When you compare that to local by-elections in the UK where we have 20 percent turnout," he said, "that's pretty good.") And the 35 Engineers themselves have been helping to train Iraqi soldiers in areas such as bomb detection - they can attest to how professional they've become.

"Our engagement with the Iraqi Army is becoming reduced as they become more effective," Lt Col Buttery said.

Of course, on the main base at Basra Airport, another army is making its presence felt. As the British leave, US soldiers are coming in. Lt Col Buttery is aware of how that might look. But, he explained, they're coming in for jobs such as training Iraqi border guards - jobs that were never in the British remit to begin with.

"It's not that we haven't finished," he said. "It's that they're coming down to do something entirely different."

Back home in Britain, debate in newspapers and on television may take the form of sweeping, vague ideas of what's happening. But when you're military, you look for specific results. And Lt Col Buttery likes the results he sees. He's walked in Basra - down the Corniche, along the riverfront - and he sees progress.

"If you were to go into Basra now," he said, "you would see an air of normality."

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