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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 April, 2003, 19:32 GMT 20:32 UK
Soldiers take time to pray in Basra
By Chris Buktin
With the Desert Rats in Basra

Heads bowed they stood united in their thoughts.

Since crossing the start line 24 days ago, they had each fought shoulder-to-shoulder for the same cause - to liberate Iraq from evil tyrant Saddam Hussein.

Gathered in the desert, surrounded by their tools of war, the 1,006 men and women of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment Battle Group attended a poignant and moving service to reflect on the conflict so far.

Padre Richard Downes
Padre Downes recalled Jesus's entrance into Jerusalem
Padre Richard Downes, wearing his robes, clambered onto the front of an army Land Rover and opened his 20-minute address with a moving prayer.

He said: "Heavenly father we thank you, for in the midst of this war-torn land you are with us, standing with us and your presence is peace.

"We thank you for the way in which you have brought us this far with few casualties although our hearts are lifted up to you in prayer for those who have suffered through this operation."

It was the first time since the Regiment, known throughout the world as the Desert Rats, had been given the opportunity to pray as a unit.

The days leading up to war had seen their base in the northern Kuwaiti desert as a hive of activity preparing their Challenger II tanks for battle.

Palm-waving

Few had chance to spare a thought for God.

On Saturday, dressed in full battle fatigues, gathered to say prayers and pay tribute to those whose had been killed and injured during the conflict.

The chaplain said he had been pleasantly surprised by the number of requests for a church service.

The crowd who were roaring and cheering for him would in six days time would be crying 'Crucify him, kill him'
Padre Richard Downes
He continued: "Tomorrow is Palm Sunday and the only palms we are going to see if probably through a vehicle window as we are flying up Route 6 to al-Mara.

"But nevertheless it is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. The most significant of all Christian festivals."

He then read a verse from Mark's gospel recounting the cheering crowds and palm-waving that greeted Jesus and his disciples as they arrived in Jerusalem.

"I wonder if you guys were pleased, delighted by the response we had from the crowds given to us by the people of Basra," said Padre Downes.

"I'm told my members of A Company (Light Infantry) that girls even came up to their location with flowers.

"I believe that some of them believed we were truly liberators.

"Some of the younger ones may have just been impressed with the pageantry of British army tanks and warriors rolling into town."

Mission accomplished

But the chaplain warned that the attitude of the people of Jerusalem to the Jesus they had hailed as "Hosanna" changed dramatically.

"The crowd who wear roaring and cheering for him would in six days time would be crying 'Crucify him, kill him'.

"Now already the coalition forces are experiencing this.

Desert Rats
The soldiers remembered the fallen colleagues and civilians
"The crowds who were roaring and cheering for us are now looting and pillaging. Such is the human heart.

"Jesus knew as he was riding into Jerusalem that his mission was not yet finished. And gents and ladies our mission is not yet finished.

"Like you I am sure you came into this location, put your flags up and took your flak jackets off and thought 'yes, victory, peace'.

"Jesus could have sat on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem put his flag up and thought sorted'.

"No, his job was not over until he had suffered and died for you guys on the cross.

"Mission accomplished."

Moving tribute

The Padre added: "We all as a Battle Group have more to do.

"May we have the strength of Jesus, who carried on right onto the bitter end.

"He came to liberate the world. We've come to liberate Iraq.

"May we have the strength and pride to see the job done."

Then the Padre led the soldiers in prayer for the dead and injured and their families.

"We pray also for the civilians who have lost their lives and those particularly who have been caught up with our action and weren't in fact soldiers themselves," he said.

Unlike the hubbub mood in which the soldiers all arrived, no one uttered a word as they made their way back to their tents to begin preparing for a further push north.

  • This is a pooled report from Chris Bucktin, of the News of the World with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment Battle Group in Basra, southern Iraq.


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