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The BBC's Paul Welsh
"The place bristles with weapons"
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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 16:58 GMT
Back to Iraq: The airbase

It is nearly 10 years since the Western allies took on Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. One of the defining images of the conflict was of British airman, John Nichol, who was tortured after being shot down by the Iraqis. In the second of three reports, BBC Breakfast News correspondent Paul Welsh accompanies John Nichol back to the Iraqi airbase he was attempting to bomb when he was shot down.

An old Mig fighter jet stands at the gate to Shaibah airbase. This showpiece with flaking paint is the only aircraft in this regional headquarters of the Iraqi airforce.

Mig fighter
A Mig jet marks the entrance to the airbase

It points impotently skyward towards the British and American aircraft which still patrol the air exclusion zone over this area of southern Iraq.

We are inside with John Nichol, the former British navigator who was shot down in the Gulf war. Pictures of him and his pilot John Peters on Iraqi TV after being tortured remain abiding images of the war.

Ten years later, he is looking at a different picture with the station commander here. A mural of military forces and Saddam Hussein.

John Nichol shares a joke with the Iraqi station commander
John shares a joke with the station commander
John points to a picture of a Mig in flight and asks Colonel Ala Slaman Dawood "This is you, the commandant?". "No", replies the colonel. He points to another plane plunging to the ground in flames. "But this is you".

In truth, neither man is pictured on the air base wall, but they burst into laughter at the idea of it.

No one here can remember westerners being welcomed inside an Iraqi airbase since before the Gulf War.

Shot down

John Nichol may well have been brought here when he was picked up in the desert by Iraqi troops when he bailed out of the burning Tornado. He doesn't know where he was first held.

He does know where he was trying to bomb and the Colonel promises to take him there. They shake hands warmly. "It was a little different when I arrived here last time," John said. "Now we are friends".

John Nicol on Iraqi television during the Gulf War
John Nicol on Iraqi TV during the Gulf War

Ar Rumaythah airbase was the target the British Tornado was attacking 10 years ago. The mission went wrong, the bombs would not release and while John Peters and John Nichol struggled to correct the problem and evade heavy anti-aircraft fire they were hit by a ground-to-air missile.

Today there is little left of the base. Only the runway itself remains intact.

Missile debris

We walk along it, John, the Colonel and I, towards a huge hole. At the point where a taxi way joins the main strip there is a hollow 20ft wide and 10ft deep.

"This is what we were trying to do on the morning of 17 January", John said. That was the morning he was shot down.

The desert where John was first captured
The hole was made by other allied aircraft, quite possibly John's own colleagues in 15 Squadron, "What you're trying to do is cut the runway. We're on the junction of a taxi-way too, so if you crater the runway here it means aircraft can't get on or off."

Scattered in and around the hole are large pieces of heavy, jagged metal.

"That's the casing of whatever weapon it was," says John.

"It must have been pretty horrific stuff for the people on the ground".

John knows himself what it's like to be bombed. One of the buildings where he was held during the war was attacked by his own side. They didn't realise that he and others were inside.

Under fire

He also knows what it is like to be under fire. After bailing out of the Tornado, the British crew tried to escape across the desert, but it is monotonously flat with no cover and they were soon spotted by Iraqi soldiers.

The soldiers opened fire. "It was like being in the middle of a western movie, the worst made western movie you've ever seen", John told me as we stood at the point where he and John Peters had ejected.

Bullets are whizzing past your ears...The desert, the sand is being torn up in spurts around you

John Nichol

"Bullets are whizzing past your ears, the cactus plant is being torn apart.

The desert, the sand is being torn up in spurts around you". John and his pilot both had their guns at the ready.

John Nichol suggested "going out with a bang", John Peters told him "no, there's always hope", and the two men stood up to surrender. Their ordeal had just begun.

bullet casing
The desert is littered with bullet casings
As we talked in the desert, we found bullet casings all around us - possibly the rounds fired at the two airmen a decade ago.

Their aircraft flew on for many miles, unmanned, before crashing. We didn't find the Tornado's wreckage, but we did come across the charred remains of an Iraqi Mig.

John still sees these things from a professional military perspective. "I know people are killed, I know it's horrible, but that is what the military is there for.

It is a big stick so that, when the politicians stop talking, you can have your will done. Whether you agree with that or not, that is what it is there for."

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See also:

15 Nov 00 | UK
Back to Iraq: The prison
13 Nov 00 | Middle East
Diplomatic 'triumph' for Iraq
10 Nov 00 | Middle East
UN committee condemns Iraq abuses
07 Nov 00 | Middle East
More flights to Iraq
06 Nov 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Saddam steps up defiance
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