Saturday, March 7, 2009

Waiting for the full-time whistle

In her fourth dispatch from Iraq, The Press reporter NICOLA FIFIELD highlights the vital role that York troops are playing in bringing peace and security to people living in Basra province.

IT is late afternoon, the heat is easing and the 1st Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (1 Yorks) has just suffered another crushing defeat at the hands of Iraqi soldiers.

Friendly football matches are a weekly event for soldiers living at Camp Sa’ad – a 15 minute helicopter ride north of the British and American Contingency Operating Base (COB) and the home of one of 14 military transition teams (MiTTs) in Basra province.

But while the Yorkshire lads might have a lot to learn from the Iraqi soldiers in terms of football skills, it is the Iraqi soldiers, or Jundhi as they are known, who are the pupils off the pitch.

The purpose of the MiTTs is to support and mentor the Jundhi as they learn to protect their country and keep the peace.

The aim is that by the summer, when British troops withdraw from Iraq, they will be able to do this job without the support of their mentors.

“Our aim is to MiTT ourselves out of a job so the Iraqi Army can stand on its own two feet,” said Pocklington man Lieutenant Colonel Jonny Price, commanding officer of 1 Yorks. “We are here to help and they recognise that. There is no animosity. We have a close and easy relationship.
“You can see that when you see the British soldiers playing football against the Jundhi – there is a normal competitive spirit, but there’s a healthy respect there too.”

As the very last troops to be deployed in Iraq, Lt Col Price, a former pupil of Pocklington School, said the success of 1 Yorks would define the British Army’s legacy in Iraq.

“The British Army has been running a marathon here in Iraq, but we have come round the last corner and we’re now in the last 100m,” he said. “We have got to get across that finishing line in good order because it’s how we cross the finishing line that will define our legacy out here.

“Troops from York and other parts of Yorkshire are the custodians of the UK’s investment in blood and treasure over the last seven years and that is a huge responsibility.

“When we go we have got to make sure that the people of Iraq look over their shoulders and say the British did a good job, thank you for what you have done and Iraq is now in a good place.

“We are hugely conscious of the responsibility that’s on our shoulders and that is a responsibility we have risen to and we are hugely proud of.”

Lt Col Price said he recognised that the threat of insurgency hadn’t completely disappeared, but he believed the Jundhi could handle that threat.

“I believe they are more than ready to meet the challenges that they now face in Iraq,” he said. “The threat is very much still there. “Just last week there was an incident in the city when one of our vehicles was targeted. A device went off, nobody was injured, but it was very sobering.

“There are still bad people out there that want to do bad things, but the militia is not there in the numbers they were last year.

“They are becoming increasingly marginalised as democracy takes root and the ballot box strengthens.”

Significantly, last month’s provincial elections passed off peacefully in a crucial test of democracy that saw Basra’s unpopular and ineffective governor thrown from power.

“Iraq is a different place to what it was seven years ago and it is for the better,” said Lt Col Price.
“The Iraqi people now have a vote, giving them more control of their own destiny. There is more stability and they are not living under a repressive regime anymore.

“Yes, the last few years have been somewhat turbulent, but they can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“They have more electricity and water. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was and people can see the progress and they can see where Basra is going.”

Private Dane Clark, 20, a York City fan from Easingwold, is one of the 30 troops from 1 Yorks based at Camp Sa’ad, which lies on the desolate banks of the Shatt al-Arab river.

It is his second tour of Iraq and he said the difference from two years ago was remarkable. “Compared to the last time I was here, there’s a big difference,” he said.

“It’s a lot safer than it was and I feel very privileged to have played a part in that. “We are showing the Iraqi Army what the military should be like, from a private soldier right up to the top.

“They have progressed really far and I think they are ready to take things over when we have gone.”

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