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Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Monday, 10 December 2007

The Battle for Basra Palace

by Jane Corbin
BBC Panorama reporter

The helicopter swooped low over the barren desert north of Basra.

Jane Corbin
Jane Corbin returns to Iraq for 'The Battle for Basra Palace', Monday 10 December 8.30pm BBC One

Below me soldiers in small dugouts threw themselves flat to try and escape the choking clouds of sand thrown up by the rotor blades as we touched down by a medieval fort.

As Britain hands over security control of the last province in southern Iraq, Panorama marks the end of nearly five years of occupation.

I had come to talk to soldiers from the 4th Battalion, the Rifles on their last mission before leaving Iraq.

The peace of the desert gave them a chance to reflect on the eleven comrades they had lost in the fiercest fighting the British army has faced in southern Iraq - the battle for Basra Palace.

Red Ten

"It was pretty intense and we lost good people who were our friends," Lt Colonel Patrick Sanders told me "one of the Shia militias, the Mahdi army, were trying to drive us out of the city"

But the Colonel did better than just describe to us what his men had gone through.

He flipped open his laptop to show Panorama producer Chris Woods an extraordinary DVD compiled from footage shot by his soldiers in the heat of battle.

Jane Corbin spoke to Lance Corporal Kevin Bagling
You can't get too emotional over here - because you've got a job to do
Lance Corporal Kevin Bagling
It revealed the whole untold story and we were mesmerised - it was like watching YouTube and Full Metal Jacket combined.

The most extraordinary incident they captured was 'Red Ten' the ambush of a British Bulldog armoured vehicle on May 21st.

Lance Corporal Kevin Bagling was filmed with his mates holding the militias at bay- rocket propelled grenades and small arms rounds clanging off the armour around him.

Red hot bullet casings ejected from the gun of the soldier next to him cascade down the back of his bullet-proof vest causing him to yelp in pain.

"It was mayhem" Kevin told me, "we were just praying we would get home!"

And they did - the camera still recording as the Bulldog backed out of the ambush.

Dodging gunfire

But Kevin got back to base safely only to discover his cousin, Corporal Jeremy Brookes, also in the Rifles had died.

"You can't get too emotional over here - because you've got a job to do" says Kevin "but it was hard" Kevin's war wasn't over - the following month he was hit by an RPG and took 52 shrapnel pieces in his neck.

"One was just millimetres from my jugular vein" he said "but once I was stitched up I volunteered to go back".

Soldier keeps watch
"The soldiers, are earthy and funny and genuine too"
The militias relentlessly pounded Saddam's old palace, home to 1,000 coalition troops and civilians, for four months this summer.

A soldier recorded - on his mobile phone, more than ten mortar rounds falling in a two minute period as the walls shook and the sirens wailed incessantly.

Troops dodging gunfire to get to the gym, the impact of a roadside bomb seen from inside the Warrior it was aimed at, an army ambulance speeding towards an ominous plume of black smoke - these are the home movies we put together to tell the story of Basra Palace.

Rocket attack

The stars in these movies, the soldiers, are earthy and funny and genuine too.

What moved me most was the footage shot in almost pitch black under a tank by army mechanics as mortars rained down.

A soldier screams "incoming!" and you can hear the rocket whistling through the air before landing with a bone crunching impact just yards away.

All the time the soldiers are shouting at each other "get your xxxxing legs in!" and calling out to make sure everyone is safe.

As I and my team, Chris and cameraman Darren Conway came under rocket attack several times ourselves during our trip to Basra, this footage has the raw feel of fear and the buzz of adrenaline that we too had experienced to a far lesser degree.

The Iraq war is unpopular with the public back home - many soldiers feel resentment that their efforts in Basra this summer went unrecorded by the media.

But their own films will tell the story of bravery and loss that marked what they hope will be the last British battle in southern Iraq - the battle for Basra Palace.

Panorama: The Battle for Basra Palace, Monday 10 December 8.30pm BBC One.

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