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A Northern Irish warfare in the desert

PUBLISHED: 18:33 03 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:42 03 March 2010

PARAS from East Anglia are now patrolling a slice of Iraq the size of south Wales.

But here the long-eared sheep struggle to find any green valleys as the desert sun beats down and 16 Air Assault Brigade's hunt goes on for a hidden army of spies.

PARAS from East Anglia are now patrolling a slice of Iraq the size of south Wales.

But here the long-eared sheep struggle to find any green valleys as the desert sun beats down and 16 Air Assault Brigade's hunt goes on for a hidden army of spies.

Committed Iraqi militiamen have taken to dressing in civilian clothes in a desperate attempt to clock the moves of British troops in the oilfields of the Rumaila area – and then call down potentially lethal artillery fire.

But Saddam Hussein's dwindling band of loyal supporters suffered a setback when men from 3 Battalion The Parachute Regiment captured an Iraqi artillery spotter – riding a motorbike and disguised in 'civvies'.

Soldiers call this subterfuge "dicking" – and are well used to this kind of underhand method after years of urban warfare in Northern Ireland.

Para spokesman Sgt Craig Allen, 42, of Halifax, West Yorks, said: "The main threat at the moment is from artillery spotters that operate from motorbikes and pick-up trucks, usually in civilian clothes.

"Then they bring a single artillery piece and fire in the direction of the area where they have seen British troops. They take a few pot-shots and then get out."

British troops have suffered no casualties from this snooping, however.

"They have been incredibly unsuccessful," said one officer.

Yesterday the Paras gave a display of their own brand of firepower by 'bedding in' a bank of 81mm mortars so they provide accurate support at a moment's notice to foot patrols operating in the western desert.

Last night Paras from their sister battalion 1 Para, based in Dover, blew up an Iraqi tank with a Milan anti-tank guided rocket.

But there is a tightrope to tread as they flush out guerrilla fighters from the peaceful locals, whose children line roads waving, smiling and gathering armfuls of sweets as Allied military vehicles pass by.

A reported suicide car bomb attack on an American convoy in the area of the venerated town of Najaf has heightened tension and fuelled wariness of vehicles parked closed to the camps of the brigade's units dotted around the oilfields and pumping stations of the Rumaila area.

Chicanes and vehicle checkpoints have sprung up around this network of camps, overlooked by sandbagged machinegun nests.

Yet one sign of relaxation is the Royal Irish Regiment swapping their helmets for their distinctive green beret and hackle – the headgear reintroduced by their cigar-chomping commander, Lt Col Tim Collins.

The Paras from Colchester are now carrying out "eagle VCPs" – swooping down in helicopters to carry out spot checks on suspect vehicles in the southern area of 16 Air Assault's Brigade after manning the northern edge of the brigade's area of operation – known as the AO.

Over a four-day period last week fierce artillery exchanges took place directed by the maroon-bereted troops on the ground.

They also came under small arms fire before taking a bridge over a canal and blocking any counterattack from the regular soldiers of Iraq's 6th Division.

A number of Iraqi prisoners were taken, with no British casualties.

Lynx helicopters from 3 Regiment Army Air Corps meanwhile have been enjoying "a slight lull", according to a military source, in the fighting west of Basra but continue to mount patrols over the desert.

And if they find anything that needs checking out, they can always call on the Paras.


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