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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 March 2007, 16:46 GMT
Huw Edwards' Iraq diary
Huw Edwards in Iraq

To mark the fourth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the BBC's Huw Edwards spent a week with British troops in Basra. Here, he answers your questions.

Deborah Averill, Cardiff: The whole scene you describe of life in Iraq sounds like something close to Armageddon - hell on earth; what do you believe are the prospects for the Iraqi people for long term peaceful, democratic life and how soon do you think it will be before they arrive at this?

HUW: We are actually in one of the most settled parts of Iraq here - and yet it can be extremely dangerous. It's not possible to leave the British base without an armed escort. Even in Umm Qasr - a port where the British say they've made great progress - an escort is advisable. Further north and in Baghdad, the violence is utterly terrifying. We'll have to see if the American surge changes things. What's happened in Iraq will affect an entire generation. The even bigger fear is that the Middle East will become more unsettled in the coming months.

Nicholas Dalby, Leeds: My question to Huw is this: the sectarian violence in Iraq is disturbing. What I am concerned about is, even after the troops finally leave Iraq, the Sunni and Shias are still going to have their obvious differences. What, if anything, are troops and Iraqi governments doing to ease the rift which has caused now so much of the unrest?

HUW: Let's use Umm Qasr as an example here. The sectarian differences have faded because (say the British) there's a realisation that the local economy and port are essential to everyone's livelihoods. If local people can be persuaded to pull together, to find common cause - prosperity, quality of life - there's some hope for the future. In areas where that focus is missing, it's much more difficult to see a way out. The United States and Britain have to make sure that there's a proper infrastructure in place before they leave. Water and electricity are the basics, then health facilities and schools.

Maurice Whelan, Hertford: Huw, how do the troops feel about the level of support given in terms of how they are able to contact friends and family in the UK? Does this have a direct effect on morale? What improvements, if any, could be made?

HUW: The troops I've spoken to this week say they have good e-mail access - though I've often been asked if I can spare my mobile phone for a quick call! On the whole the facilities for troops are good with one notable exception - the accommodation in tents (with pretty flimsy roof) is very basic and nine days in one is more than enough for me... I can't imagine six months. And in summer temperatures it must be unbearable.

Emma Hudson, Iver, Bucks: What is it like to be under attack from the rockets?

HUW: So far we've been lucky this week - several attacks but the rockets have landed far away and not injured anyone - or else they've been false alarms. But you're aware that there could be a hit at any moment. It's much worse for colleagues like Paul wood in Basra City, where the British bases are under attack daily.

Tony Carr, Bicester, UK: Huw, I'd love to know what the soldiers actually think of their presence in Iraq. Do they feel that they are doing a worthwhile job and what do they think the British public think of them? It would be good to get the "toms" version, not the officers. Keep your head down and safe journey home.

HUW: It's a pretty consistent theme here. They recognise that support at home has dwindled - but it's not a reduction in support for the British forces themselves. The troops very much focus on the duties they have. They are here to achieve certain things and they focus on those. This applies equally to the officers.

Thanks to all who sent in questions.

Christian Parkinson and Sue Gray
Christian and Sue
A word about our team here - because two people have really made this week happen. How do you fancy being the cameraman who does all the filming, who sets all the lights, who controls all the sound - and then edits all the packages in his spare time? Christian Parkinson deserves a medal (but his obsession with military history is doing my head in). And as for Sue Gray - well she can set up a satellite dish and all the communications in record time, and make sure we get on air. She's just brilliant - and after this she's off for a break... to Baghdad. Now how did she wangle that?

• We're invited to meet an elite squad of Iraqi armed police being trained by British experts. These are the men who'll take on much of the responsibility of tackling insurgent violence and criminal gangs when the British have left. They know they're taking a big personal risk by doing this work: it's a worry for their families, too. The men are obviously motivated and they're led by a sharp police captain who's being groomed for a very senior position. We watch them on a training exercise - in a disused building near Basra. Before it ends, they're called off to deal with a problem in Basra city. Much has been made of levels of corruption in the Iraqi police - but this squad is clearly seen as a very different category - and there's a lot of hope invested in their future.

When you visit a place like this - not just the base but the devastated communities beyond the boundary fence - you appreciate even more deeply what you have back home

• One of the most remarkable men I've met this week is Abdul - the translator who works with the British troops in Umm Qasr. He reveals that he was taken prisoner in the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s, and wasn't able to return to his native Iraq for 15 years. He says: "I was 33 when I was held in Iran, and when I came home I realised I was 48." It's all the more remarkable that he's emerged from it with such gentleness of spirit and warmth of character - needless to say he's hugely popular. He accompanied us to the port and market areas and introduced us to lots of his friends. He also translated for me when I interviewed a group of jobless men in the docks. Meeting him has been one of the highlights of my week.

• Already looking forward to going home. It's been a long week - though I realise it's absolutely nothing compared to the six months done by most people in the forces here. But when you visit a place like this - not just the base but the devastated communities beyond the boundary fence - you appreciate even more deeply what you have back home.

We are planning for Thursday - our last full day of programming in Basra - and I'm keen to give some coverage to the aid and reconstruction work being carried out in southern Iraq - with British taxpayers' money. Securing clean water, rebuilding vital services, making the electricity supply more reliable - these are all being worked on.

• Interesting being here with the military community as Chancellor Gordon Brown announces an extra 400m for defence spending. The clear message here is that it's overdue and certainly necessary. It's easy to see where some of the money is being spent - the new armoured vehicle, the Mastiff, is constantly discussed on base. It's not a perfect replacement for the Snatch (a lightly-armoured Land Rover) but it certainly provides much greater protection while transporting troops. The Snatch has been very heavily criticised for leaving soldiers vulnerable to attack. One look at the Mastiff and you realise that vulnerability isn't an issue - its thick armour and heavy grills are pretty formidable - and inside we get a great look at the kind of (very expensive) technology now in use. Lance Corporal Craig Jones explains that he drives by cameras - they give superb visibility. Sergeant Alan Beaumont tells us that it's not as agile as the Snatch, but it's supremely reliable and the troops love it. Any teething problems are being dealt with by an American team - as the Mastiff is based on a US vehicle. But forget any notions of greenery - we reckon it does just over a mile to the gallon. Told you it was American...

• Some e-mails about the logic of presenting some of our news programmes from Iraq this week. Many more saying they've enjoyed the coverage (which is reassuring). This fourth anniversary of the invasion coincides with the reduction in British strength (but a surge in US forces). It's a hugely significant period for Iraq. If the strategies fail now, Iraq's future becomes even more uncertain. We wanted to mark that with some specific programming. It's very difficult to see greater stability in the Middle East if Iraq descends into greater chaos. The presence of the USS Eisenhower - in the Gulf - reminds us that America's eyes are also on Iran right now, and that makes people extremely nervous.

We have bonded big time with Major Robbie Davies of 2 Lancs - this guy could transform the Army's PR! He grabs every opportunity to promote his team and he's a star. He understands the media's (often baffling) needs and delivers every time. Want to broadcast the Ten O'Clock News live from the massive tank park at a very busy time? No problem. Want to talk to someone who's impossible to find? Done. He should be booked right now to run the MoD's Information Department when he leaves the Army...

• It was a tricky Ten O'Clock News last night. We lost our main communications link with London - so I found myself being cued by the Ten O'Clock editor Craig Oliver who was on a dodgy mobile phone link to TV Centre. It's a strange sense not having any of the usual director's talkback, and not being aware of the way the programme is developing. Stranger still when you're broadcasting from the Iraqi desert. We'd found an old Iraqi tank left in the mud since 2003 - and it seemed an appropriate backdrop for the fourth anniversary.

• Lots of e-mails about flak jackets. When to wear one? Basically you do as you're told. The base in Basra is under attack almost daily - so when there's an alert you're told to wear the flak jacket (and helmet). It's a strict rule on base that the jacket and helmet are always kept within 20 metres.

The handover of the Old State Building
The handover of the Old State Building
• The British mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion by handing over the Old State Building in Basra City to the Iraqis. I'm told it was the original coalition base in Basra after the invasion - so the transfer is highly symbolic. A rather bizarre news conference is convened in the Basra Airport Building - featuring senior Iraqi figures and Roger Jones, the Consul General, along with General Jonathan Shaw, the man who runs much of southern Iraq. Bizarre because the airport is semi-deserted (built by Germans in the mid 1980s, a kind of time capsule) and only used by Saddam a few times. The local air services are starting to flourish. There seem to be dozens of Iraqi camera crews present and there are long questions and even longer answers. When General Shaw gets a chance to speak, he does so with the kind of precision and directness which invites no contradictions... he makes very little attempt to spin (which is refreshing) but I can't imagine it's easy to explain why power is increasingly in the hands of corrupt Iraqi police officers.

• It's very hot again. Maybe not by Iraqi standards, but certainly by British ones. A senior officer quips that it's not hot at all... it's really rather cool etc... I'm tempted to ask him to visit our festering tent - and enjoy the rather Spartan conditions - but I suspect I'd be greeted with a sinister stare... and they're very good at doing sinister stares...

• There were no alerts last night - for once - and it was nice to sleep for a few hours. But not a long kip. We got to bed at 2.30am (after doing the Ten) and then were up again at 6.30 to film a sequence at breakfast (2 Lancs again, thanks to you know who... ) and to do live slots for Breakfast News. But let's face it - the big incentive was the great breakfast laid on by RCWO Andy Winnett and his team - they're the only team of Army chefs on base. After that we interviewed Trevor Hopkins from Bristol, who entered Iraq with the Second Royal Tank Regiment in 2003 - and is back for his third tour in 2007. Like so many of his colleagues, he notes the change of atmosphere in Basra City - much more aggressive - much more menacing - especially at night. That's the reality of Iraq four years on.

DAY FOUR contd...
Flying over the British base - on the outskirts of Basra - you're struck by two things: the sheer size of the place, and the fact that lots of it is a building site. They're getting ready for more troops as other British bases are closed in the coming months. There's a clear sense that we're entering a new phase, and much is being made of the handover of powers to local Iraqi forces. The port of Umm Qasr is being held up as a beacon of good practice - links with the Provincial Council are good - and levels of corruption among local police are low by Iraqi standards. Elsewhere it's much more depressing. In Dhi Qar Province - where the British have also taken a back seat - the chief of police admits he can't trust a third of his men - and he's forced to take on dozens of illiterate officers. The strong impression is that the British think they've done what they can - and now, quite frankly, it's up the Iraqis. It's a long way short of the ambitions set out four years ago.

Iraq map
An early start. We're taken to Umm Qasr where we're met by the very impressive Major Will Lynch who's in charge there. He and his men take us out on a visit to the port and the market place. This is billed as one of the safest towns in Iraq, but we're still not allowed to wander around without protection. We chat to some men in the port. They all have the same message: they have no work and no money. They seem to enjoy friendly relations with the British troops - and there's a sense among local people that the port is so important to the local economy that sectarian differences tend to be smoothed over. Then it's back to Basra in a battered old Sea King helicopter, flying very low over the desert and passing several oil plants on the way. We can't go by road - the main highway is constantly under attack.

We spend the day filing material and reporting live for BBC News 24, BBC World and the main television bulletins on BBC One. The Ten O'Clock News goes out at 1am local time, and by the time we've de-rigged the satellite dish and all the material, it's getting on for 2.15. Then it's back to the tent... and if we think that's bad, I can't even begin to describe the portable loos around the base...

DAY TWO contd...
We're busy planning a week's events when we get our first story. We're told that 11 "internees" (not "prisoners", it is stressed) have escaped from a British detention centre. That's bad enough, but the way they did it is particularly painful for those in charge. The internees basically swapped places with visitors. And it happened some days before it was noticed. Red faces all round.

Bags and kit everywhere... flack-jacket and helmet within reach... we'll get five seconds' warning of a mortar attack
So who's escaped? Are they dangerous? Can't go into details, sorry, they say. But the escapees are "considered to be a threat" to Iraqi security or to British troops. So they're clearly dangerous, and still on the run. And all this as the Brits' Operation Sinbad tries to contain the violence in the Basra region. Privately, officers admit it's hugely embarrassing. The official spokesman prefers to say it's "regrettable".

It's 9am and already very hot. Our first real look at Basra air base - home to thousands of British troops. It's big. A mix of cabins and tents linked by dirt tracks and gravel roads, and surrounded by high security fences. In the distance, the control tower and the old airport hotel, now the military headquarters. We share a tent with some Sky and ITV colleagues, and some officers assigned to look after us. It's basic.

Our home is a big tent and we're allocated a camp bed and very little else. Bags and kit everywhere. Flack-jacket and helmet within reach. We'll get five seconds' warning of a mortar attack. We're told that one soldier had a narrow escape last week. She was driving when she heard the siren. She jumped out of the Land Rover and crouched behind a shelter. The mortar destroyed her vehicle.

It's early morning and we've checked in at RAF Brize Norton. The chartered XL jet looks a bit too cheerful next to the sober Tristars and VC-10s. Al Basrah - or Basra - is the only place to go if you want to see what life is like for British forces in Iraq. It's four years since the invasion, and we're planning a week's programmes to mark this anniversary. I have mixed feelings about going, for obvious reasons. But I want to see what's happening there. Our flight is delayed by three hours - a short wait say the troops around us. Lots of them are returning from leave.

Some are going to Basra for the first time. One young Mancunian tells me: "it's not easy going out when you know there's less support at home". Another looks up (reluctantly) from his PSP and says: "hope you report what the ordinary soldiers say, not the muppets in charge". We get to Qatar seven hours later. The US base at Al Udeid is immense. We're told to get our flack-jackets and helmets for the next leg - the flight to Basra. But our Hercules has been delayed because of rocket attacks on the Basra air base. It gets to us at 2am. Big thunderstorms to worry about - not to mention insurgent attacks on the planes and helicopters around the base.

In pitch darkness, we circle high above the runway - and at the last moment we descend at an alarming angle. The RAF gets too little credit for the work it does. It's 4am when we land. Very windy, the tail end of a sand storm. The base has been under attack during the night. Welcome to Basra, says the captain. There's a briefing in four hours. We'll plan the week's programming. We need some sleep before then.

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