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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 December 2007, 16:16 GMT
Transcript: The Battle for Basra Palace


The Battle for Basra Palace

Reporter: Jane Corbin

DATE: 10:12:07

JEREMY VINE: Good evening, I'm Jeremy Vine and this is Panorama. What's the truth about the end of our occupation of Basra? Was it really an orderly withdrawal, or were we driven out? And what was the price we paid to end the body count?

When the British Army drove out of Basra in September journalists were not invited to witness the end of our presence there, too dangerous in more ways than one. So it was left to the military and the politicians to write the script: "we went when we were ready" that was the message. Jane Corbin has reported from Iraq for Panorama since the invasion. The truth, she says, is rather different.

JANE CORBIN: An airbase in the desert on the edge of Basra city, Britain's last foothold in Southern Iraq. Any day now they'll formally hand over the security brief in this province to the Iraqis. Only four and a half thousand troops will be here by Christmas, a fraction of the forty-six thousand that invaded Iraq. There's a feeling of an army drawing down and in on itself. The enemy Shia militias are still out there. They remind the soldiers and me of that several times a week with attacks on the base. Powerful guns still target incoming missiles, but the truth is the British Army bowed out of Basra months ago.


Attacks on British forces here in Basra have dropped dramatically in recent weeks. But earlier this summer, British soldiers were involved in some of the bloodiest street fighting they'd experienced in decades. It's gone almost unnoticed until now.

SOLDIER: (Street fighting, machine gun fire) They're moving up on us... they're moving up on us!

CORBIN: May 21st a convoy was ambushed by gunmen in a warren of streets. These soldiers had been in Iraq for just four days. A passenger in their armoured vehicle had a camera, another a mobile phone. They filmed Lance Corporal Kevin Bagling and his mates from the Rifles Regiment fighting for their lives.

It looks like Mayhem. What did it feel like to be in the middle of it all?

Lance Corporal KEVIN BAGLING
4th Battalion, The Rifles
Praying that we was coming back home. Didn't know what to expect really. But then most of it like all happened so quickly. It escalated so quickly. But you could tell it was going to happen because all the women and children was getting off the streets.

CORBIN: And at a certain point you got a bit close to comfort. What happened?

BAGLING: The corporal that was next to me he was firing rounds and the empty cases were going down my back. (laugh) and it hurt!

CORBIN: This skirmish - known as "Red Ten" in army slang - went on for 90 minutes. Temperatures inside some of the armoured vehicles rose to over 50 degrees. That's how tough it got for troops to fight in Basra this summer.

BAGLING: All the warriors were going down with heat casualties, so we had to get them out the area to like help 'em out.

CORBIN: What about the heat?

BAGLING: It was boiling. We went through six boxes of water in an hour and a half.

CORBIN: Six boxes of water?!

BAGLING: Yeah, it was mad. It was so hot. But you had to keep going up and down very fast or you'd be hydrated.

CORBIN: The Red Ten crew survived amazingly without serious injury and fought their way out of the ambush. But when they got back to their base the Lance Corporal received some terrible news.

What did you discover then in terms of the casualties and who they were?

BAGLING: My cousin died in small arm fire, he got shot in the head. But we didn't know nothing about this. One of the lads told me that he'd died. It was a bad experience like. You have to put it out your mind really when you're over here. You can't really get emotional over here because you have a job to do.

CORBIN: Kevin's cousin, Corporal Jeremy Brookes was one of eleven soldiers from the Rifles who were to die in operations in Basra this year. I met up with Kevin and Jeremy's battalion outside Basra on their last mission before their tour ended. The Iraq war was unpopular back home, embarrassing even. There was almost no coverage of what the soldiers went through last summer as they fought desperately to hang on in Basra city.

4th Battalion, The Rifles
It was a difficult time. We were involved in some pretty intense fighting, perhaps some of the most intense urban fighting that we've seen in recent years and certainly in Iraq, and we lost a lot of good people, so close friends.

CORBIN: So that intense fighting was caused by the militias basically inside Basra.

SANDERS: Yes it was. I think it's fair to say that about 90% of the violence that was going on in Basra at the time was directed against us and what you saw was the Jaish-i-Mahdi, one of the Shia militias, effectively trying to drive us out of Basra.

CORBIN: The Shia militias had already watched as British forces withdrew from three of the four provinces they once occupied. By the spring troops were left in just two bases in Basra: the airbase, known as "the Cob" in military jargon, and 12 miles away by road Saddam Hussein's old palace on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the heart of the city, a huge complex, bigger than 200 football pitches. I'd been to the palace when the British made it their headquarters just after the invasion.

Basra, April 2003

CORBIN: The Seventh Armoured Brigade has now moved in to Saddam Hussein's old summer palace in Basra and taken over.

Back in 2003 the people of Basra welcomed the British presence. The Commander, Graham Binns, had high hopes for Basra's future. Now Major General Binns is back, his job to manage the British disengagement and put the best face on it. Maj General GRAHAM BINNS Commander, British Forces in Iraq What I think are the undisputed facts is that we liberated a country quicker than we thought we would. The country then collapsed quicker than we were imagining because all the state institutions were removed. And then we didn't rebuilt it as quickly as Iraqis expected and we turned from an army of liberation into an army of occupation quicker than we thought and some people have chosen to fight us.

[Film footage]

CORBIN: When Saddam's regime collapsed powerful Shia militias filled the vacuum in the South. They soon turned on the British. The Mahdi Army emerged as the dominant force. They were responsible for most of the British deaths, as they boasted in their propaganda movies. Their aim was to force the British out of Basra and take control of the city. The leader of the Mahdi Army in Basra is Sheikh Bahadli, seen here in white. The British military call him: "Sheikh Behaving Badly." I couldn't get to him myself, it wasn't safe, but he spoke to Panorama through an intermediary. Did his militia force the British out?

Mahdi Army militia
Yes, the attacks which were openly mounted by the heroes of the Mahdi Army, the popular resistance to fight the British occupiers, were a major cause of their withdrawal, even the British will acknowledge this.

CORBIN: The Mahdi Army, who also filmed themselves, had simple tactics. They siege the palace from the surrounding streets and prevent vital supplies from getting through to the British.

SOLDIER: That was miles away. Here it goes again (loud explosion)

CORBIN: A thousand people were living in the palace at the mercy of mortars and rockets. Soldiers recorded the incessant attacks with phones and cameras. Sometimes there were more than 70 hits in one day. This one clip shot by a soldier shows ten mortar rounds falling in less than two minutes.

Lance Corporal JAY COX
4th Battalion, The Rifles
The militia were very, very good at calling in, in direct fight and they had our accommodation blocks, the cookhouse, Battalion Headquarters picked out as targets, so rounds would regularly hit your accommodation. So it was quite lucky that Saddam Hussein had built a palace that would withstand attack.

BAGLING: It's like an alarm clock some days. Like 6 o'clock in the morning, guaranteed, scoff times in the afternoon, scoff times at night. Guaranteed that they'd fire on us.

CORBIN: The palace's defences against the mortars didn't always work, and rockets seemed to come from nowhere. The attacks were relentless, dragging on for weeks, and somehow, under siege, the soldiers tried to keep to their daily routine. These young officers filmed themselves trying to get to the gym one day. Outside the palace, the city erupted in gunfire, but for once it wasn't aimed at them. Iraq's football team had won the Asia Cup and every citizen of Basra, it seemed, was out celebrating.

SOLDIER: Welcome to Basra Palace. (dry jest)

CORBIN: But there weren't many light moments. The militias kept up the pressure. The Cob, the main British base at the airport was also under sustained fire. Buildings were destroyed, people were killed. But soldiers from the airbase continued to provide a vital lifeline, supplies so that troops at the palace could hang on in there. The Royal Welsh Regiment fought their way into and out of the city with vital water, food and ammunition.

2nd Battalion, The Royal Welsh
We faced over 70 roadside bombs as a battle group in our first few months here. It would be not unusual for one trip into Basra to be confronted by a dozen roadside

bombs, rocket propelled grenades, small arms fire, and the guys got on with the threat and got on with the mission.

CORBIN: A camera caught the actual moment when a roadside bomb or IED hit a British Warrior. That's what happened another day to Corporal Richard Paske, he survived though three comrades would die on re-supply runs.

2nd Battalion, The Royal Welsh
The actual IED actually ?? raid outside ??. It knocked the gunner out, I think he was out unconscious for a couple of seconds, I was unconscious for a couple of seconds. And then obviously when we regained consciousness we went through our standard operational procedures to alert the other call signs that we were in distress. And when they came to us with aid, we sorted ourselves out, we fired back in and cracked on. Four hours later that's when myself and a gunner got took into the hospital.

CORBIN: Getting the critically wounded out of the centre of Basra was far harder. Using his rifle night sight a soldier filmed his unit holed up in the police headquarters keeping the militias at bay. One of the British took a direct mortar hit, only a helicopter evacuation under fire could save his life.

Lance Corporal JAY COX
4TH Battalion, The Rifles
Yeah he filmed our pilot who actually pulled it in and kept the helicopter steady on the ground. But at that stage about six mortars came into the actual compound of the police headquarters. We did the changeover as quickly as possible and the helicopter lifted bringing Stephen back to the Cob and thus saving his life.

CORBIN: Lance Corporal Bagling who'd survived the Red Ten attack in May wasn't so lucky in June. As the militias intensified their attacks on the palace he was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.

Lance Corporal KEVIN BAGLING
4th Battalion, The Rifles
I didn't really feel it, it was just like a scratching sensation, and I touched my neck and I just felt the blood, like. So I looked around and I said to all the lads: "I've been hit." But then I returned fire some more and went back into camp. We didn't realise how serious the wound was until we got back here and seen all the shrapnel pieces in my neck.

CORBIN: How many pieces were there?

BAGLING: Fifty-two.

CORBIN: Fifty-two pieces in your neck?!

BAGLING: Yeah, one was touching my jugular so...

CORBIN: And you were jolting in a Warrior all the way back to base with it just millimetres away from your jugular.

BAGLING: Yeah. (laughs)

CORBIN: Could have been a very different ending.

BAGLING: I know.

SOLDIER 2: Mate, that was close, I'm shaking.

Colleague 2: ?? coming!!! (Loud explosion)

SOLDIER 1: What did I hit Jacks?

CORBIN: Army mechanics filmed their narrow escape as mortars rained down. It was becoming clear that an even more formidable enemy than local militias was behind these attacks - Iran.

SOLDIER: Take cover!!! (loud explosion) CORBIN: According to the British, Iran had been supplying the militias with weapons for several years. Three key organisers for the Iranians have been captured inside the city.

4th Battalion, The Rifles
At that time there's no doubt that the Iranian support for the militias was pretty strong. They were providing weapons, they were providing ammunition, they were providing what we call 'lethal aid' things like very sophisticated roadside bombs, the sort of technology that you couldn't just knock up in a shack downtown in Basra. And they were providing training as well.

CORBIN: Did you know they were actually there providing hands on training? Did you have evidence of that?

SANDERS: I think most of the training took place in Iran, but we certainly received a lot of intelligence reports of Iranians coming to Basra, and towards the later stages when perhaps the militias themselves were becoming less enthusiastic about taking us on because of the losses they were suffering, then we started to see mortar teams speaking Farsi downtown in Basra itself.

CORBIN: In fact Iranian-speaking mortar crews operating in the city firing at British forces. Effectively there was a standoff between us and Iran here in Basra. RICHARD JONES
British Consul General, Basra
Yeah, but that doesn't alter the fact that we decided our... we took our policy decisions according to our policy and not according to any particular pressure or any particular violence that was shown against us.

CORBIN: The Iranian government didn't respond when we asked if they were involved. It's clear though that UK forces, especially as their numbers reduce, remain vulnerable to Iran in the present political climate. As the battle for the palace reached its climax, the British were taking casualties but so were the militias. Posters of their so-called martyrs appeared around the city. More than 70 were confirmed killed over the summer, far more probably died. Civilians were caught in the middle. Local TV captured the damage. The militias' mortars were falling short and British guns and US helicopters targeted the Mahdi Army in the city. No one has reliable figures for civilian casualties but they mounted as the summer wore on. The British position inside Basra palace was becoming untenable. They needed a way out without losing more lives. In July a fledgling Iraqi army division began taking over security from the British. Baghdad sent General Mohan, the new Security Tsar, to Basra. He had a blunt message for his British friends. They had to go - now!

Basra Security Chief
The exit of British forces from the palace would provide an opportunity for the bombing against civilians to stop and would limit civilian casualties. And we also wanted to give the militias a chance, those who were carrying weapons under the pretext of fighting the occupiers. Now that they have left, why are you still resorting to arms?

4th Battalion, The Rifles
They were telling us that we were part of the problem, and that they could, if we worked with them, deliver security and stability in Basra, and we took that advice, it's worth listening to the locals.

CORBIN: General Mohan was seen as a trusted intermediary by both the Shia militias and the British. Secret negotiations began for a ceasefire which would allow the British to withdraw from the palace without coming under fire, but the price exacted by the militias would prove uncomfortable.

AL-FIRAIJI: There was dialogue with some of the militia leaders, those who believed in peace and the rejection of violence, and they convinced their men that a new phase of peace must reign in Basra.

CORBIN: Do you know the details of this deal?

AL-FIRAIJI: The deal was simple, the Mahdi Army had to stop bombing British forces, and the British Army would release all Mahdi Army prisoners in its custody.

CORBIN: Those militia prisoners had been hard won by the British over the months, the fruit of carefully planned strike operations against key insurgents. The army's combat camera team filmed the night raids. One raid netted a man linked to Basra's notorious death squads involved in torturing and killing local people.

Was the guy you were looking for there? Did you grab him?

4th Battalion, The Rifles
The bloke was inside the house. We had good intelligence. He was actually hiding on the roof in a wall bowser. Actually screws himself into a small hole and hid on there.

CORBIN: But you got him.

ROLFE: Yeah, we got him.

CORBIN: And this was a pretty big fish, as far as you're concerned.

ROLFE: He was a member of his family that was part of a death squad.

CORBIN: But by late summer, many of the prisoners they had taken, held on the airbase, became chips to bargain with the Mahdi Army. The top brass don't want to talk about the deal they made, perhaps because it involved negotiations with a militia that killed dozens of our soldiers.

You did do a deal with them.

Major General GRAHAM BINNS
Commander, British forces in Iraq
Well I'm not going to discuss the nature of those talks but I'm... you know, I've always said that we would talk to anyone who had the interests of Iraq and its security and prosperity in mind.

CORBIN: But we've discovered the details of the secret deal. We even witnessed the release of some prisoners as part of it. Scores of Mahdi vehicles turned up at the British airbase while we were there to pick up some of their freed men. All prisoners had to sign a paper promising not to attack British or Iraqi forces before being released. It's part of a wider Mahdi army ceasefire. They say they'll disarm and become part of the political process. Up to 85 men are being released over time though many of them, the British government admits, are an imperative threat to security.

This is basically doing a deal with the militias. The British did a deal with the militias who are killing British soldiers.

British Consul General, Basra
Well as I say, I don't think the word 'deal' is right, and it's not really my place to get into the question of detainee releases because that's not my province, but...

CORBIN: Was it a political deal or a military deal?

JONES: It was....

CORBIN: Or 'decision' rather?

JONES: The decisions are decisions that are taken by the military and there is a clear process agreed with the Iraqi government of reviewing the situation of people that are held in our detention facilities, and that process resulted in releases.

Ministry of Defence footage
September 2007
CORBIN: Once the ceasefire and prisoner exchange had begun, the British were able to hand over the palace to Iraqi security forces. But Whitehall was nervous the media would present it as a defeat. So the PR strategy was to ban the press from the ceremony. The only pictures were taken by the military themselves. The ceasefire held. In September the soldiers were finally able to leave the palace without a shot being fired.

As you went out with the flags flying what did you think?

Corporal JAY COX
4th Battalion, The Rifles
Try to be British at the end of the day. I think that we made our mark on Basra. To be honest, I think Basra is probably a better place, and although the militias are still there, they are a lot fewer in number than when we first arrived here in May.

CORBIN: For their part the militias didn't want to acknowledge they'd done a deal either. They claimed they'd defeated the British militarily.

Mahdi Army militia
Our hard-hitting and concentrated attacks led to the speed of the British exit from the city centre and main palace. They say that the withdrawal was their choice and policy - No! If the matter had been left up to them, if it was in their hands, things wouldn't have been as simple as that. They would have stayed for years and years until they'd sucked all of Iraq's resources dry.

4th Battalion, The Rifles
Does this look like a defeated army? No, it's complete bollocks. We've fought hard over the last 3 months. We could have stayed for as long as we wanted to. They threw everything they had at us and we left because it was the right thing to do. Arguably the peace and quiet that we're seeing in Basra at the moment is because we fought them at the negotiating table.

CORBIN: However it was achieved, the peace and quiet is giving British forces a chance to get on with Operation Stonehenge, reinforcing their quarters at the airbase. This doesn't look like an army leaving any time soon. The base, close to the border with Iran, is a vital asset. Our American allies won't want to lose it. The British Army is moving into over watch, their focus on training local forces to replace them. They say they'll only go back into Basra if asked. But the Iraqi general is not convinced they'd even come then.

If you have problems with the militias, if you fail to do the job you came to do, will you call the British back into the city to help you?

Basra Security Chief
The question is, are British forces ready to provide this help?

CORBIN: What do you think?

AL-FIRAIJI: I don't think so.


AL-FIRAIJI: The British military have restricted their mission in Basra and our allies say it openly, that their central mission will now be limited to the area of training and not fighting the militias.

CORBIN: The Prime Minister has announced troop numbers will fall to 2 thousand next spring, yet the government has admitted that is not enough for anything other than self-protection. It raises the question of what exactly Britain's future role here will be. For Rifles who fought the battle of Basra palace and lost 11 men spent their last days in Iraq preparing for their memorials.

SANDERS: There's a section we're trying to do for the dead so you've got 11 there, we all have pictures of ten of them.

CORBIN: This year 32 British soldiers died in Basra. Not a single one has been killed in the city since the deal was struck with the Mahdi army four months ago. The memorial wall at the airbase commemorates the 173 British military deaths since the war began. If negotiation and withdrawal were ultimately the way out for the British Army, many will ask why it couldn't have happened sooner, saving lives.

Over 170 British lives lost here in Iraq and a war which started being unpopular with the public and has become even more so. Do you think it's going to be judged a success or failure what you've done here?

Commander, British forces in Iraq
Well I think success or failure will be judged by others in the future, and I think those who look for success or failure in such star terms simply don't understand the nature of modern conflict.

CORBIN: With the British gone from the city, next week I'll be investigating the legacy for the people of Basra. The Iraqi Army and police are still weak. the Mahdi Army all powerful. It's a city where women are murdered for being inappropriately dressed; a place where torture and corruption are rife. We'll hear from the police chief who is standing up to the extremists, but with seven attempts to kill him so far, can he survive?

JEREMY VINE: And that's next week. Now there's uncut footage shot by soldiers on our website if you want to see more, as well as some of Jane's other films from Iraq.

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