Leaving the Palace

The soldiers lead a semi-nocturnal existence between guard shifts and operations. Reveille is usually a salvo of incoming mortar fire. Almost every man smokes and few could tell me what day it is, let alone the date.

They have already suffered the worst casualty rate of any British unit in Iraq, and yet are not even halfway into their tour. The receding tide of British public and political support for their war has abandoned them.

They know that if they die their death will go barely noticed by the media at home, beyond perhaps a paragraph or two in a newspaper, or a few sentences at the back end of the six o’clock news.

Welcome to Basra Palace in the final days of British tenure, with barely three weeks left until the last soldier withdraws from the base, but where meantime the 650 men of the Basra City Battlegroup fight on with little but their esprit de corps to keep them going.

With ‘Iraq’ now a dirty word in Britain, to be uttered with a wince, the sense of the troops’ isolation is all-pervading.

“We didn’t ask to come here,” said the recce platoon commander, a young captain, sitting in the back of his armoured Bulldog as it  rumbled out of the palace gates into the fetid, dusty city night on an operation.

“We were sent here by our country and our government. We are making incredible efforts and sacrifices. Yet sometimes it feels like our country and government act as though they wish we weren’t here at all.”

Within a couple of hours of his words another soldier was dead, slain by a single shot as that operation ended. He was a driver in a Warrior. The bullet had passed through the narrow gap beneath his hatch, fractionally open as relief against the heat. It killed him instantly.

But it was another 15 minutes until his comrades  noticed  he  was dead, after he failed to respond to orders for the vehicle to move. His death somehow seemed like a metaphor for the entire state of the British soldiers left in Basra – dying in hermetic solitude until the moment someone remembered that it was time to order their withdrawal.

There doesn’t seem a lot left worth realistically fighting on for. Iraqi government control, to the extent it exists at all in the city, is perilously weak.

The city’s governor, himself a major donor to the Fadilah militia who control many of Basra’s oil refineries, was sacked by the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over a fortnight previously, but has effectively refused to leave his post and demanded the decision be repealed.

The city’s police force has barely been reformed  from  the  Frankenstein monstrosity of death squad members and mafia thugs first recruited and trained by the British in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

Meantime Basra’s three main militias have penetrated every corner of local office and the security apparatus. Some city estates are almost no-go areas for coalition forces, ringed with sophisticated pre-placed IEDs, and governed by the gun law of militiamen.

Hardly ‘mission accomplished’ for British foreign policy aims, and a long way from the lofty ideals aspired to by the invading troops in 2003 of establishing democracy in Iraq and stability in the region.

But given the problems once faced by twelve battalions of British troops securing Belfast during the Troubles, the situation in Basra, with a population of 1.8 million, is not one that can be reversed by 650 soldiers in the palace.

The pressure on the small battlegroup, who lost their first man on day one of their deployment, has come in many dimensions. The heat is appalling. Daytime temperatures can reach a brain-cracking 52 degrees.

Night conditions can be even worse. During one night operation a moisture laden wind came up from the south, multiplying the humidity factor.

As result, the men’s sweat could not evaporate and their bodies’ natural cooling mechanism failed.  In the back of the Warrior vehicles, notorious for their poor air conditioning, the temperature reached 72 degrees.

Commanders began to babble and slur over the radios as they went down as heat casualties. Some soldiers tore off their clothes, vomiting and delirious. Over a period of several hours, much of it in contact, 15 men became heat casualties.

The capabilities of the soldiers’ human enemy is lethal enough. Two years ago the Jaish Al Mahdi, the JAM, was still considered an inept, ill-equipped  and  amateur  insurgent force.

British units who clashed with them elsewhere in southern Iraq killed them in their droves, with few casualties of their own. Now, with the influx of support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s al Quds division, the JAM has been dramatically transformed.

They fire upon Basra Palace every day with newly-made mortar rounds or rockets date-marked 2007, making it the most bombarded of any coalition base in Iraq.

Outside the palace walls the JAM’s ability to identify British patrols moving within the city and lay down combination ambushes using roadside bombs, rockets and small-arms fire has also vastly improved.

Their bomb arsenal includes state-of-the-art Explosively Formed Projectiles which can penetrate British armour. And the frequency of attacks has worsened. Since the last foreign office diplomat hightailed it out of the palace in February the graph of violence against the soldiers has risen in a mounting series of spikes.

After the arrival in May of the current Basra City battlegroup, comprising a core element of two companies from the 4th Battalion The Rifles with a company each from the Royal Welsh Regiment and the Irish Guards, attacks have escalated even further.

Advocates of the planned withdrawal from the palace point out that 90 percent of Basra’s violence is aimed at British soldiers in the city. They suggest that once these troops have left the palace the violence will diminish.

The examples of the three southern provinces already handed over by the British to the Iraqi army tends to back this argument.

Furthermore,  in Basra City  two outstations earlier transferred from British to Iraqi control, the Shatt-al-Arab hotel and Old State Building, both of which were heavily attacked during the British tenure, became peaceful almost overnight once in the hands of Iraqi troops.

The political dimension of this theory suggest that the presence of British forces divides Shia loyalties, and once the troops have been pulled back the Shia will find their own peaceful equilibrium.

Iranian influence will then diminish. Despite their shared religious tenets with Iran, Baswaris have historically proved violently opposed to Iranian interference, as demonstrated by their stalwart fight in the Iran-Iraq war.

Though elements of the JAM are currently financed, trained and equipped by Iran, once the British have left, the argument goes, the JAM will reject this backing in order to capitalise on their nationalistic credentials.

Basra will become neither an Iranian satellite nor a Beirut civil war battlefield, but more of a Palermo-style mafia fiefdom. Not quite what the British had in mind for Basra when they invaded Iraq, but not perhaps as bad as it could be.

The pessimists argue an equally logical case, predicting that once the British have withdrawn from the city the militias will turn upon themselves in a fight over Basra’s vast potential oil wealth.

The vulnerable remit of central authority in the city will see the fledgling Iraqi army and corrupt police riven between different militia factions: 90 percent of the violence will simply be redirected from one military group upon another and Iran will capitalise of the vacuum, buying out the JAM’s nationalist convictions with money and guns.

There are serious practical considerations supporting a withdrawal. The palace’s isolated location hugely advantages the
insurgents. Built by Saddam Hussein in 1990 at the southern end of the city, buttressing the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, there are only three viable resupply routes for logistics convoys to reach the base from the main British camp situated outside Basra at the airport.

Terribly vulnerable, all three pass directly through the city. The requirements of food, water, fuel, ammunition and spare vehicle parts ensure that these resupply convoys are vast, sometimes over 100 vehicles long.

Many of the civilian lorry drivers involved in the operation get drunk just to summon the courage to make the run. And the JAM attack the convoys from the moment they get into the city right up to the palace gates.

Over 50 percent of the Battlegroup’s casualties have occurred as they secure the routes for these convoys. Diplomats describe this tactical paradox as the “self-licking lolly”, and its irony had not been lost on the soldiers.

“Losing blokes just to resupply ourselves is a different kind of loss,” admitted one 4 Rifles corporal. “Sometimes it feels like you lost them just to bring in a loaf of bread or a toilet roll.”

Indeed there has been more than a little weeping in Basra Palace. With 50 men dead and wounded, among their casualties the battlegroup has lost a 48-year-old major, a legendary infantryman who had served in every rank from rifleman up; one of twin brothers, both serving with 4 Rifles in Basra, who was killed by a bomb on their birthday; and three soldiers slain in a single bomb attack.

Under such duress, picking up the end game pieces of the government’s riven Iraq policy, the question ‘Is it worth it?’ inevitably haunts many of the soldiers in the moments between operations as they rest in their hardened accommodation blocks, stacked in bunks, up to 24 men to a room. But there also comes a moment when the questioning stops.

“We’ve  fought  hard  and  lost  some fantastic blokes,” the corporal continued. “For what? We’ll probably go home questioning ‘What was it all for?’.  As soldiers it is our right to tick. But the blokes would be gutted if we were prevented from going out on ops. As soon as we’ve got our orders, got our kit and weapons and walk over to the vehicles  the debate stops and we just get on with it.”

Before I left them, the Battlegroup’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Sanders, summed up his men’s enduring motivation in words that haunt me still, so perfectly did they encapsulate the troops’ defiance amidst the utter futility of their situation.

“We fight for what soldiers have always fought for,” Sanders said to me, “for each other, for our reputation, and because we are professional soldiers. This is the life we chose. The men want to see it out. Not for a prime minister or cause, right or wrong, but for each other, and to see it out.”