Monday, May 4, 2009

Out of the darkness - Soldier Magazine

OFF-DUTY policeman Qasem La’Ety Thamer’s face glowed with contentment as he took in the hustle and bustle of downtown Basra on a balmy evening in mid-April.

Sat on a bench with wife Mona Hussein and five-year-old son Ali (pictured), the officer listened to the clacking of dominoes and jovial chatter of a group of young men wafting across the crowded corniche – the main drag of shops and restaurants lining the Shatt al Arab waterway.

That Qasem was able to head into Basra from his home 25 kilometres away to enjoy a night out is testament to just how far the city has emerged from its dark recent past.

Only one year ago, the corniche fell silent after 1800 as Iraqis rushed for their homes to avoid the attentions of the militias.

Now Basra is a city transformed and, as with every person Soldier stopped to talk to during Telic’s final joint patrol with British, Iraqi and US troops, Qasem can’t get enough of his new-found freedom.

The proud policeman – who was thrown into prison in the 1990s for refusing to join Saddam Hussein’s army – has high hopes that the successes of the six-year op and the growing capability of the Iraqi Army will help his country blossom into a nation where his son can have a safe and prosperous future.

“You could not go outside after dark before Charge of the Knights,” he said over the din of Basra’s rush hour traffic. “Life was very hard and people were scared. It was difficult to do your job. Now I’m happy and secure because Basra is the best province in the south of Iraq.

“I’m a policeman and we are working hard to provide security for everybody who lives here and give them freedom from the bad times. Because of that, I can come here with my family to enjoy my life.”

As much as Basra is revelling in its conflict-free present, no one is under any illusions about the amount of blood, sweat and tears shed by coalition troops since Op Telic rolled into action in 2003.

After encountering some hard fighting during their initial push into Iraq from Kuwait, British troops were able to patrol in soft hats as the situation calmed down. Things soon took a turn for the worse and a total of 179 UK soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice in the ensuing battle against insurgents.

Fighting aside, Britain’s biggest legacy to the people of Iraq are the thousands of newly-trained soldiers who make up the Middle Eastern nation’s Army.

From its beginnings as a rag-tag group of men using outdated kit and tactics, the modern Iraqi force now stands tall thanks to the wealth of knowledge passed on by the military transition teams that lived and worked alongside them.

Gen Aziz Mohammed – the man responsible for all of Iraq’s Security Forces in Basra province – said that the coalition’s hard-fought contribution to installing lasting peace and democracy in the region would not be forgotten.

“What the British have done is already appreciated,” the senior officer explained during a rare interview at the Basra Operations Command based in the Shatt al Arab Hotel.

“They have given a big hand for training, for logistics, even for civilian life. Already if you walk around Basra you feel how safe it is. I feel that in the future we will have a good life.

“We have started projects and are doing new things to allow the Baswari people to feel they are secure. We are all very serious about working hard to give them a life that is better than the one they had.”

Unsurprisingly for an operation that saw such frequent contact with the enemy during its peak, tales of British bravery under Telic’s most testing times are not hard to come by.

CSgt Andre Pepper (1 PWRR), who was Mentioned in Dispatches for his part in the daring rescue of stricken British troops stranded in downtown Basra in 2004, saw further action on his second tour two years later.

Stationed at the Provincial Joint Coordination Centre near the former Ba’ath Party headquarters opposite Basra’s Old State Building, Pepper was first on the scene when, in 2006, a Lynx helicopter was shot down, crashing nearby and killing the five personnel onboard.

The senior soldier battled through an angry crowd and was faced with “walls of fire unlike any other” as he searched through the residential block to find the aircraft’s wreckage. The clear-up operation took two days to complete and was carried out under intense RPG and mortar attacks from insurgent fighters.

Now coming to the end of his third and final Telic, selfless Pepper carries a genuine belief that the sacrifices made by himself and his colleagues since 2003 will not be in vain.

“I can’t believe the city as it is now,” he said. “I still expect to go around the corner and for it all to go wrong.

“It has changed completely and I’m pleased we are leaving because that’s the job done. On top of that, I’m also pleased for the people of Basra and their future.

“They really need it because they haven’t had much luck and it will be nice to see it all work out for them. Whether they like us or not, I hope that the Iraqis see that we were here doing good.”
Despite the sterling work carried out by Britain’s troops in Iraq, there remains an ever-diminishing proportion of the public that questions the motives of the coalition in invading in the first place.

But looking as Qasem La’Ety Thamer and his young family spending time together in an increasingly thriving city provides an answer in itself.

Saddam Hussein has gone, the militias have dispersed and business is booming. The capable Iraqi Security Forces have taken control of their country’s safety needs and democracy has firmly taken root, with national elections due to take place later this year.

Every military man and woman like Pepper who has served with dedication and courage in unspeakable conditions against a brutal enemy can hold their heads high knowing that the British Army’s steadfast commitment to freedom has ensured that Telic has ultimately triumphed.

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