Suffolk soldiers on deadly desert route

NOW more than five years after the invasion which deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraq is at a crossroads.

Grant Sherlock

NOW more than five years after the invasion which deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraq is at a crossroads. As the UK plans the eventual withdrawal of its troops, the focus has shifted to helping the Iraqis take back control.

In the first of a series of special reports from the city of Basra, chief reporter GRANT SHERLOCK explains the roles a band of Suffolk soldiers are playing in that effort.

IT'S the middle of the night and there's desert all around.

Three hours ago we left the relative safety of the British base at Basra airport and are now on our way to the Kuwaiti border and the US Army's KSF base beyond it. How far we are on our way it's hard to tell - it's been desert all the way.

We've passed few cars and seen few people - this is the no man's land of southern Iraq which has claimed the lives of 176 British troops so far.

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I'm travelling with a group of soldiers from UK Logistic Battalion. They're specially trained to protect vulnerable slow-moving convoys travelling through the wide expanses of Iraq's barren countryside.

Among them are a group from East Anglia, mostly from Ipswich and a handful of towns around it, and tonight they're protecting vehicles on their way to pick up the supplies which will keep the base at Basra running - and protecting each other from the ever-present threat of a roadside bomb.

This is what these soldiers have spent the best part of the last year training for. Those from the 202 Transport Squadron based in Ipswich are volunteers with the Territorial Army. They put their hands up for a deployment to Iraq when offered the chance last year.

While most back home would baulk at the prospect of going to a war zone by choice, these soldiers jumped at the chance.

They've since won high praise from senior officers for their conduct and helped ensure the smooth running of the base at Basra.

Among them is Lance Corporal Andrew Brown, a 25-year-old from Appleby Close, Ipswich, who is a vehicle commander among the force protection troops.

“The training was so intense and so constant before we arrived in Iraq that the only thing I was nervous about when I got out here was learning the routes we'd be taking,” he said.

“I expected it to be a little more crowded than it is. I thought everywhere you go was going to be little shanty towns and lots of huts but travelling from the border and up to Basra the first houses you see are near Basra.”

But it's not the quiet that the troops have to worry about. It's the constant threat of a bomb - what the acronym-obsessed army calls IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which have become the weapon of choice for militia targeting multi-national troops in Iraq.

Hidden at the roadside or in the road surface itself, IEDs are designed to damage military vehicles as they pass and kill the soldiers within and they have proved deadly on all too many occasions.

L Cpl Brown said of the militiamen: “If they're doing their job properly and camouflage things we might never see them at all.

“But you can't let it play on your mind. Before I came out here I thought 'what if something happens?' but now I think if it's going to happen, it's going to happen.

“You just get on with it and keep your fingers crossed that it doesn't happen.”

The convoy sets off each night under the cover of dark and either travels southbound from the base at Basra Airport on its way to Kuwait to pick up supplies or northbound from Kuwait loaded with supplies for the troops in Basra.

Trucks carrying water, ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, food and all sorts of other supplies set off from a marshalling area near the base. They are driven by civilians, mostly Iraqis.

Guarding them are the force protection troops. They control heavy firepower and state-of-the-art armoured vehicles called Mastiffs - 27 tonnes of steel designed to withstand the threat of IEDs.

Some of those aboard them, and the specially-converted “Snatch” Land Rovers which make up the rest of the convoy, are still teenagers but, in the army's words, they are soldiers first.

The soldiers who train in Ipswich have been attached to 2 Logistic Support Regiment which is part of UK Logistic Battalion, a crucial arm of the UK war effort in Iraq.

As the focus shifts to empowering the Iraqi security forces to handle the situation in their own country, Britain wants to draw back its forces there and to do that it will need a huge transport effort to move its troops and equipment from the country.

In the meantime though it's enough work just keeping the 4,500 British troops in Basra with what they need to get the job done.

It is now four months since the soldiers arrived on their tour and they've barely had time to draw breath since their plane landed.

Some travel on the convoys between Basra and Kuwait, others maintain the vehicles their colleagues travel in, while others deliver supplies and whatever else is needed to British troops stationed around Basra.

“I've never been away from my family for long like this. In the beginning I didn't mind so much but now I miss them a lot. That's why I make sure I call them twice a week,” Private Gabriel Naimhwaka, from Grimwade Street, Ipswich, said as he sat in the back of one of the Snatch Land Rovers on its way to Kuwait.

Having left his homeland of Namibia eight years ago, he made his new home in Britain, then decided he wanted to serve his new country by going to war. He joined the TA in Ipswich and took the first opportunity to go to Iraq, leaving behind his wife Rauna, 29, and daughters Bernadette, four, and three-year-old Rauna, named after his wife.

Being apart from them has weighed on his mind more heavily than even the dangers being in Iraq presents.

“But even if I miss them a lot I'm still looking forward to completing the rest of my tour,” Pte Naimhwaka said.

“My children ask me when I'm coming home but I can't tell them, I just say that I will be.

“This has changed my life. I'm pleased for the experience. I'm pleased I've seen a different part of the world.”

As the convoy snakes its way along the road to Kuwait, the soldiers remain alert to the dangers. The Snatch vehicles patrol up and down the convoy, soldiers atop the vehicles armed and ready to respond to any threat.

The heavily-armoured Mastiffs take up positions at the front and rear, ready to block any suicide bombing attempts or to absorb the brunt of an IED should one be hidden in the road.

It's a job which puts them in constant danger but so far this tour that danger hasn't been realised.

That's largely down to the fact that Iraq is a changing country. Security has improved and many can see a future where once there was none.

It's also down to the professionalism of the troops and their senior officers who have the convoys down to a fine art. Routes are changed nightly to keep the militia guessing. The army is careful not to create any patterns and the troops are ever watchful.

Any vehicle which gets too close is warned off with a flare - a bright red or green phosphorous charge flying towards them is usually enough to keep any sensible driver back.

Captain Andy Coulson, from 27 Squadron based at the US KSF base in Kuwait with the force protection troops, said: “We travel at night because it is quieter, so there's less traffic on the roads and there's generally less people on the road to notice us. We take a low profile approach.”

Convoys can range from 30 to more than 100 vehicles, with the longest stretching more than ten kilometres. One convoy took 13 hours to do the journey, with shorter ones capable of completing it in several hours less.

However long it takes, and whatever the temperature in their sometimes stiflingly hot vehicles, the troops remain on standby to react. They block off junctions and ensure the convoy's safe passage.

When stopped, they are often approached by Iraqi security forces keen to hold a conversation with the Brits.

At one junction, Iraqi soldiers approach to shake hands, they have come to know the force protection soldiers as they pass through regularly.

They ask the soldiers for a battery for a torch, for one of the traffic-stopping mini flares or seemingly anything they can get their hands on; despite the UK's best efforts, the Iraqi army is still leagues behind in training and equipment.

Our convoy reaches Kuwait at about 6am, just in time for the soldiers to take part in PT - their daily physical exercise. The fact they've just travelled a gruelling route through the night doesn't excuse them from the rigours of daily life in the army.

Yet still they are upbeat. Pte Naimhwaka said: “I've found this a really good experience. I have no regrets.”

And as he looks to a future in the police, L Cpl Brown will always remember his time in Iraq.

“It is a good life at the end of the day but it isn't what I want. I think it's a case of my mind saying 'I've done this now'. This is the pinnacle of an army career really, doing a tour.”

After PT the troops head to bed to get what sleep they can through the day, for tonight they'll be on the road heading back to Basra.

- Do you know someone who is playing a part in Britain's effort in Iraq and Afghanistan? E-mail or write to: Evening Star Newsdesk, Press House, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1AN.

- In tomorrow's Star: Grant Sherlock reports on the story of two Ipswich soldiers who had a near miss with a roadside bomb but were lucky enough to live to tell the tale.

Troops from 202 Transport Squadron in Ipswich currently out in Iraq include: L Cpl Brown, L Cpl Dan Coote, of Hawthorn Drive, Ipswich; L Cpl Paul Campbell, of Newbourne; Pte Tahnee Hearn, of Ipswich; Pte Matthew Finch, of Grundisburgh; Pte Gabriel Naimhwaka, of Grimwade Street, Ipswich; Pte Bradley Hambling, of Radcliffe Drive, Ipswich; Pte Lisa Jones, of Bressingham, Norfolk; Pte Chris Gilbert, of Braintree; L Cpl Paul Southernwood, of Colchester; and Pte Moses Millard, also of Colchester. Pte Nicole Tonner, of Onehouse, returned home to Suffolk earlier in the tour