Wattisham troops fire first shots

ATTACK helicopters from Britain's rapid response 16 Air Assault Brigade have fired their first shots in anger, engaging several targets in southern Iraq.

ATTACK helicopters from Britain's rapid response 16 Air Assault Brigade have fired their first shots in anger, engaging several targets in southern Iraq.

Anti-tank TOW missiles were launched from Mk 7 Lynx helicopters of 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps destroying several targets on the ground in a night-flying operation yesterday, said regimental spokesman, Captain Matt Wilcock.

More details of the attack were expected to be made available later today.

The baptism of fire for helicopters – which have been in service since 1977 - follows reports of a popular uprising in Iraq's second city of Basra.

Iraqi troops loyal to Saddam Hussein's regime are reported to have turned artillery pieces horizontally on to crowds of dissidents in the port city whose Shia Muslim majority has long been opposed to the country's ruling Sunni Muslims led by Saddam.

The brigade's helicopter unit have so far been used to patrol Iraq's southernmost reaches where resistance has so far been light, although groups of fanatical militiamen, the Fedayeen,, who have remained faithful to Saddam, are said to be roaming around the oilfields of Rumaila where most of the brigade, including armoured cars from the Household Cavalry, infantrymen from the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment, are based after moving across the border.

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Vehicle checkpoints have been stopping the busy traffic of pick-up trucks as locals loot what they can from oil installations in an area which can produce up to 2.9m barrels of oil a day.

American contractors have been brought in to control towers of flames from oilwells blown up by Iraqi defenders as they retreated last week. Each of the nine gas and oil separation plants sabotaged in this way are burning a million dollars worth of oil every half hour – money which is seen as key to bankrolling the restructuring of a post-Saddam Iraq.

In an ominous sign that a counter-attack against British forces maybe looming two pairs of ageing night-vision goggles have been recovered and six rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) were recovered last night from checkpoints manned by troops from 3 AAC.

During one of the worst storms experienced in the area since British forces came to the Gulf region, fighting patrols were sent out last night in high winds and torrential rain.

A number of contacts were reported in which three Iraqis were killed and three taken prisoner. An armoured Landrover was also destroyed with no loss to British forces.

Extreme caution is being exercised in approaching the civilian population amid a feverish atmosphere where false surrenders are said to be on the increase.

There have been incidents of coalition troops coming under fire after Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes have brandished a white flag – to the despair of British troops whose job it is to round up prisoners and police the area.

"A white flag should mean everything," said Capt Wilcock.

The overnight downpour forced some to hastily relocate tents as up to eight inches of rain swamped British troops encamped in the Rumaila area.

In a case of divine intervention in one sector, only the journalists, myself included, and the padre Father Mark O'Keeffe enjoyed an uninterrupted night's sleep.