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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 December 2006, 12:28 GMT
An army Christmas in Iraq
By Martin Bell
BBC News, Iraq

Black Watch troops wearing Christmas hats in Iraq
There are more than 7,000 British troops in southern Iraq

Thousands of British troops remain in Iraq and most of them will remain on duty over Christmas. Army padres there will be trying to give the troops some spiritual cheer over the festive period.

There is not much to be said for war.

But one thing it does is to allow the military chaplains to hold their Christmas services at the right time, with the men and women of the armed forces all around them.

At home the services would be held days or even weeks before the event, in garrison churches, before the regiments dispersed for Christmas.

By contrast the 12 chaplains - 11 from the Army and one from the Air Force - serving more than 7,000 troops in southern Iraq will be in the thick of things.

They will hold midnight Masses and carol services in every unit for those who wish to attend provided they are off duty.

For the rest, Christmas is like any other day.

Patron of lost causes

Those attacking them do not take the day off and the defenders will, if anything, be extra vigilant.

We might want to give them encouragement and help rather than pull them down
Reverend Andrew Martlew
British chaplain

Rocket and mortar attacks on British bases occur every day - three rockets fell on the Shaiba logistics base while we were with a padre visiting a sentry on a watchtower.

An artillery battery which went home on the last rotation lost four men killed out of 110: in modern soldiering, those are not light casualties.

Some of the young men, aged 18 or 19, are on their first operational duty, and even in their first foreign country.

Others have had one, two or even three previous tours of duty in Iraq.

All of them are facing six months of concentrated reality amid conditions of hardship, danger and boredom, which most of us who live in peace and comfort can hardly imagine.

Their homes are tents and their churches are portakabins.

In such conditions one of the few advantages of being an Army padre rather than a village vicar is that you can rename your church if you want to.

The Reverend Andrew Martlew, chaplain to 40 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, holds services in a metal hut behind blast walls 10ft high which, when he arrived, was the Church of St Paul in the Desert. It is now the Church of St Jude.

St Jude is known, among his other functions, as the patron saint of lost causes.

Fag-break visits

The chaplains are frank about it: their task is harder because the soldiers feel more isolated, and have more questions to ask, because they are serving in a cause that is either unpopular or misunderstood at home.

Prime Minister Tony Blair meets soldiers in Iraq
Tony Blair spent three hours meeting troops before Christmas

The padres also wonder, "What are we doing here and why?"

The Reverend Andrew Martlew adds: "This is quite a difficult thing to say and an even more difficult thing to think, but almost by taking the Queen's Shilling we're putting elements of our consciences into cold storage.

"In order to help the guys we might be not necessarily economical with the truth, but we might want to give them encouragement and help rather than pull them down."

Another sign of Christmas is the seasonal migration of chiefs of staff and politicians. Like birds of passage, they fly into Basra and then out again.

As a disaffected soldier put it, they stay for the length of a fag break.

Tony Blair, on his fourth and last pre-Christmas visit, actually spent three hours with the troops.

The theatre of war - an aircraft hanger at Basra Air Station - was decorated with two Challenger tanks outside and two Warrior armoured personnel carriers, a Lynx helicopter and 300 serving men and women of all three armed forces inside.

These things are not left to chance. The prime minister's travelling party of 13, excluding bodyguards, included seven whose job was in one way or another to deal with the press.

Twenty reporters were also on the plane. That is a ratio of more than one to three of sheepdogs to sheep. On what is still a controversial conflict, presentation matters.

Getting on with it

The prime minister insisted there was no change of policy: "British troops will stay until the job is done."

Yet the soldiers themselves know that the Shaibah logistical base will be handed back to the Iraqis in the spring or early summer.

The three British bases in Basra will close. Forces will be concentrated around the airport.

The visible symbols of occupation, like tanks in the streets, will diminish to little or nothing.

The conditions will be in place to declare victory - or at least something less than defeat - and leave the field.

The troops just get on with it. They always have. They always will.

If there is a message from them this winter, it is more than one of seasonal goodwill. It is: remember we are here. We are here to stay or, better still, to go. And - please - do not take us for granted.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 23 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Martin Bell will be presenting a Radio 4 documentary about the role of padres in the British army, God and the Gun early in 2007.




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