Troops facing the riddle of the sands

CROSSING the border was clearly the easy part. Today the question is how much to trust the white flags being waved at coalition troops whose mission ordained from on high is not to conquer but to liberate.

By James Fraser

Crossing the border was clearly the easy part.

Today the question is how much to trust the white flags being waved at coalition troops whose mission ordained from on high is not to conquer but to liberate.

Bands of fanatical Iraqi militia are coming out of the woodwork and circling British troops who are combing the southernmost reaches of Iraq as they mop-up the uneasy vacuum left after the initial US-led onslaught.


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It is a dangerous task. On Friday a US Marine officer was killed in a drive-by shooting, yesterday a member of the Black Watch died in an incident further to the west, near Basra, involving what appeared to be a group of civilians.

It is unclear at this stage whether he was fired on by a rocket or small arms – but there was no equivocation in the response of his Scottish comrades.

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They stormed the Ba'ath Party HQ in Basra in an attack which initial reports say the survivors number high-ranking party officers.

The threat of suicide bombers, for so long a curse of the Middle East, has also increased as the war becomes not quite the pushover strategists at first expected.

Though 16 Air Assault Brigade are said to remain on a full war footing, the operation has become a sort of counter-terrorist sweep in which innocent groups of Bedouin tribesman and Marsh Arabs must be distinguished from Saddam's feared Fedayeen loyalist militiamen, who have swapped their uniforms for civilian clothes.

This unseen guerrilla army has become a worry as they scout out weapons caches stowed away beneath the sand. Helicopters of the Army Air Corps and soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment must hunt them down first.

"All troops are exercising extreme caution when they approach civilians," said 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps' spokesman, Captain Matt Wilcock. "But we are still keen to talk to the locals and interact with them as they could provide vital intelligence. Each situation

must be taken on its merits."

He added anyone bearing arms, as were many of the prisoners taken in the first days of the conflict, is now likely to be shot.

These guerrilla tactics – where gunmen hide among a civilian population – is the kind of warfare that the British Army can boast 30 years' experience of combating: Northern Ireland – "the best training ground in the world," as one NCO told me.

But the Iraqi desert is an entirely different arena to the bandit country of South Armagh or a Belfast estate.

As I write, a sandstorm is blowing a gale, tugging at the tent and scouring faces and hands with fine dust.

And a sandstorm provides perfect cover for an enemy who knows the terrain well.

Patrols are now out on the ground and in the air, probing the featureless dunes around the AAC's forward desert base investigating what are at the moment sketchy reports that, some distance away, one of its helicopters was targeted by a rocket-propelled grenade.

But as the boom artillery mingles with the sound of thunder and lightning in the Paras' more conventional battle further to the north, the jokes at least show no sign of drying up.

"This is going to be a chipping away type war, Jimmy," Corporal Russ Hewitt confided over breakfast. "And it's going to be a long one. I was supposed to take the kids skiing at Christmas – haven't they seen my schedule?"

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