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Waves of welcome for allies

PUBLISHED: 09:21 14 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:43 03 March 2010

FOR twenty miles, along the single road that ran past the mudbrick houses of its suburbs and town itself, the people of Al Qurnah waved and blew kisses.

FOR twenty miles, along the single road that ran past the mudbrick houses of its suburbs and town itself, the people of Al Qurnah waved and blew kisses. Some children gave their best shot at salutes, snapping to attention and breaking out into broad grins.

For the column of British troops who trundled northwards at a convoy speed of 40km this welcome was hard to put into words. "It was humbling," said one officer. "Unbelievable."

Historians site the Garden of Eden in Al Qurnah, 65km north of Basra, where the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers feeds the abundant flowering of date palms, wheat grass and a network of canals in which townsfolk commute from house to house on traditional reed canoes when they want to give their donkey a rest.

A local hotelier has claimed the tree of good and evil - undoubtedly a business coup - but this rapturous welcome would have redeemed the most sullied soul of the cussing British squaddie as the Iraqis waved and smiled as though their paradise, so often lost, had been regained.

The town, shelled often during the Iran-Iraq war, fell bloodlessly four days ago as soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment and paratroops swept north to where the Iraqi Army's Sixth Division should have been. But like so much of Saddam's organized resistance, it had simply vanished, the only signs a few rusting hulks of military hardware knocked out or abandoned where they had been cynically positioned on the outskirts of this charming town.

Some of the adults, who may remember the shellings this garrison town received during the Iran-Iraq War, simply looked on quizzically, perhaps seeing yet another unit of soldiers in just another uniform as more than 5,000 troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade yesterday moved north from the Rumalia oilfields along the banks of the Tigris. Pointing to their mouths and brandishing the silver wrappings from ration packs, some of the children, of course, were just after sweets.

This, however, felt like a real liberation. "Yes to Leader Saddam Hussein. Yes to Sacrifice, Yes to Iraq" had been stencilled in Arabic and English on a building, whitewashed with officialdom. The overwhelming reception said firmly otherwise. My hand ached with the effort of returning their joyful waves.

I was travelling with 3 Regiment Army Air Corps in the typical stop-start manner the British Army has perfected as we drove another 120km north to the town of Amarah, which may be the Suffolk-based unit's final destination of the war.

British troops are policing the vacuum there, wary that the imams just across the border in Iran will take a keen interest in what happens to the Shia majority in Iraq. Religion is more strictly observed way of life in these central marshlands

Establishing some form of regional government for Amarah and al Qurnah will be the primary role for the brigade - an aim which Lieutenant Emily Hughes, a trained helicopter pilot, hopes will be a beneficial legacy her regiment will leave Iraq as a parting gift.

"I think the war has gone well," said Lt Hughes, a 'watchkeeper' who co-ordinated the flow of information between her brigade's headquarters and all its sub-units.

"The people today were genuinely pleased that we were here. Whether that's because they wanted sweets or cigarettes, I don't know, but I hope we leave some good after we have gone.

"Everyone was saying that the coalition was wrong and they shouldn't have gone in. I'm not going to comment on whether we were right or not but I hope the outcome, the freeing of the Iraqi people justifies the means."

Though she is a trained helicopter pilot, Lt Hughes, from Saffron Walden, Essex, was given non-flying role because she has yet to complete a conversion course to qualify to fly the regiment's Lynx helicopters and admits she was a little jealous of her fellow pilots' experiences in the air.

"It hasn't felt like a war because you're removed from all the fighting. I suppose people want to go home with stories of derring-do and there's nothing wrong with that. But for those who do, you don't want to have seen what they have. It's better to be bored than dead."


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