Monday, May 4, 2009

Community Centred - Soldier Magazine

AT the height of Telic’s troubles, the Contingency Operating Base (COB) at Basra Airport was an exceedingly dangerous place to be.

Despite being out of the city and away from the threat of small arms fire and IED strikes, the location was bombarded with indirect fire attacks as militia mortars and rockets fell from the sky, destroying equipment and ultimately claiming casualties.

With the marshland in the vicinity of the base providing an ideal firing point for would-be assailants, British commanders realised that the key to extinguishing the deadly attacks once and for all lay in establishing a presence in the villages in and around the intricate system of waterways surrounding the city.

The solution arrived with the formation of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Oxford, an austere smattering of canvas on a riverbank about 5km from the COB. Its watery environment is a world removed from the dusty streets of Basra city itself, but strike battlegroup soldiers from the Desert Rats on Op Telic 12 and, more recently, their 20th Armoured Brigade successors on Telic 13 have played a major role in clamping down on rocket strikes.

Just three attacks have been made on the COB since the turn of the year and the final soldiers to launch patrols from FOB Oxford using assault boats manned by 35 Engineer Regiment’s sappers have been able to fully focus on building up a rapport with rural Iraqis living in nearby villages.

The gratitude for Britain’s help in ridding the area of troublemakers is evident in the happy faces greeting 5 Rifles’ troops at every turn out on the ground. Scores of children tagging onto one of last month’s concluding patrols were rewarded with sweets, chocolate and footballs, while influential sheikhs made a point of stopping to talk to platoon commander Capt Charlie King.

“It’s completely different now to how it was in the recent past,” said the officer. “Our emphasis has been on going out and getting to know the people. That way we could see what their problems were, whether that was a lack of water or not having somewhere to play football, and do something about them.

“Now we go through areas where people have been stoned in the past and it’s a good indicator of how far things have moved on that we are greeted with enthusiasm. I think that our presence has given the local population something to believe in and someone they can trust. Obviously we can’t give them everything they might want and need, but we can start to give them that bit of hope.”

Joining the Rifles on a river patrol through the narrow channels of water that cut blue swathes through the surrounding green-and-brown landscape, it is not long before Soldier encountered the first villagers keen to provide a glowing endorsement of the British Army.

“We are currently building a house which will be the biggest one here,” said resident Mohammed Mahdy as he took a break from his construction site in the intense mid-morning heat. “We can do this in peace because the British soldiers are kind and professional men.

“They have been coming here every ten days recently and because of them there is no distrust in the village. Everyone likes them being here because they have good policies. One year ago we would not have left our houses after dark, but now everyone feels safe to go out at night.”

It may have lacked the frequent contacts and acts of bravery that characterised previous deployments, but 5 Rifles’ Telic tour has nonetheless yielded incredible results which have been delivered while living and working in the most basic of conditions.

Alternating between acting as the COB’s quick reaction force and spending time at FOB Oxford, the infantrymen have had to face long periods of relative inactivity in order to carry out some of the key functions of the operation’s closing months.

But despite the danger of becoming complacent amid such a peaceful environment, Capt King (pictured below left) said his soldiers had excelled in keeping their minds firmly on the job in hand.

“We did have an anticipation before we arrived about how things would be, but we came in to a situation where nothing was really happening and no shots were being fired,” he told Soldier.

“We have switched from being the quick reaction force racing to the front gate to go and help out in the city, to working on the Iraq/Iran border to stagging on at a FOB. The breadth of stuff the guys have taken on is something I have to thank them for.

“It’s difficult coming into an environment that not too long ago was a complete war zone but they have adapted themselves to a completely different situation and it’s been a case of taking on whatever jobs we need to and getting on with it.

“The guys are always professional and although it has been very quiet, it would have been easy to get complacent and think that nothing is going to happen. My boys have stayed focused and have always been ready for the worst case scenario.”

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