I stood on the road earlier today and watched as a convoy of armoured vehicles rumble past me, Union Jacks flying high, in what seemed a triumphal parade.

But the dust caked, tired faces of the men astride them told a different story, that of relief.

head line basraThe soldiers from the Light Infantry and Royal Welsh were the last to be pulled out of the bases in Iraq’s second city, Basra.

The names such as Basra Palace, Old State Building (OSB), the Shat Al Arab Hotel, the Governors Compound, all destined soon for regimental history.

But for these men – even hardened by war – places names that still conjured fear and dread, islands in a sea of hatred.

When I arrived in Basra in 2005 to work for a private security company, my initial time was spent at Basra Palace – an enclave on the edge of the city – which, has as its eastern border the huge Shat al Arab – the water feature which is the combination of the two Biblical rivers the Tigris and Euphrates and was once the stomping ground of Sinbad the sailor.

The autumn and winter of 2005 were relatively quiet.  The calmness of the ‘Palace’, interrupted only by the revving of armoured vehicle engines and the screech of an occasional badly aimed rocket, that more often than not plopped ineffectively into the ancient waterway.

OSB looking south, an old recoilless rifle covering the arcs
OSB looking south, an old recoilless rifle covering the arcs

But the tension was there.  Nothing tangible, but you could sense it.

A wave of discontent occasionally crashing into the shore, erupting into incredible violence and then disappearing as quickly as it had come, but all that was to change.

It was the 6th May 2006. I had just got back in off leave and had booked myself onto a ‘helo’ for later that day to take me back to the Palace.

But I wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Back in the NAAFI , the ‘live feed’ from an Iraq news crew in the city was already all over Sky News.  A Lynx ‘helo’ had crashed and was burning.

This was a ‘game changer’.  Like the CIAs supply of Stinger missiles to the Afghan mujahideen in 1986, which sounded the death knell for the Russians, air supremacy over Basra by Brit Mil had just become a misnomer.

Brit Mil denied it was a surface to air missile (SAM), but we all new. The writing was on the wall and it was only a matter of time before the Brit Mil bases would become unsustainable.

Looking north up the Shat Al Arab at sunset from Basra Palace
Looking north up the Shat Al Arab at sunset from Basra Palace

I pulled my team out of the Palace later that month, opting for what seemed the safer option of the Brit Mil encampment of Basra Air Station (BAS). But the safety was short lived.

The Mahdi Army, the Shia insurgent group backed by the Iranians, were on the offensive and the war of indirect fire (IDF) started.

The IDF, which consisted of badly aimed 120mm rockets and any other projectiles the insurgents could get their hands on  attacks, went through the roof.  It became a constant barrage which peaked in July 2007 with BAS  receiving 79 attacks of a total of 168 rockets.

And this was just one Brit Mil camp, the bases in the city received even more!

IDF figures showing monthly attacks on BAS up until September 20087
IDF figures showing monthly attacks on BAS up until September 2007

The casualties were mounting, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown having a hard time explaining the constant flow of Unioin Jacked draped coffins driving through the small town of Wootten Basset.  So Brit Mil were told to reduce their exposure.  Offensive operations went down and yet the attacks by the Mahdi army dropped.

“All very strange”, ‘we’ the guys on the ground agreed.

No one new about the pull out from the city.  It was a military operation, a closely guarded secret, but again ‘we’ knew that something was up.

And then on the 3rd September came the news, the big pull out had started.

Map of Basra
Map of Basra

There were rumours that a deal had been done, that the British government had talked with the terrorists.  Maybe in a 100 years – when the papers are released – we will know, maybe never. But the fact is, according to my figures, attacks went from 79 in July, to 36 in August to 8 in September.

A convenient pause as the British troops pulled out.

 

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