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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Basra troops 'on another planet'
By Peter Grant
BBC News, Basra

Much has been written about UK troops in Iraq, but thousands of miles away from the political arguments, how are they getting on?

"This", said the British officer firmly, "is war".

British troops
Some UK troops say they are enjoying their Iraq experience

"This is one of the most demanding phases of Operation Telic (the British operation in Iraq) so far. For many people, it's life-changing."

Hardly a sentiment designed, at first hearing, to boost morale.

And soldiers in southern Iraq are aware of the debate about that, and the other matters concerned with them, which has been going on back in the UK.

But the lofty prose of newspaper columnists, the arguments of retired officers, and the intricate analysis from political pundits, can often seem like signals from the dark side of the moon.

Basra is a world away from Whitehall in every sense.

'Behind the wire'

When they're in their bases on the outskirts of the city, servicemen and women can keep up with the news if they wish - but daily life has a habit of intruding.

The bases themselves aren't completely safe. Iraqi insurgents attack them from time to time with mortars and rockets.

Burnt-out vehicle
The effects of an RPG can be devastating

And life "behind the wire" has other demands for those who work in a support role. That workload can be heavy.

Days, according to one soldier, just merge into one another.

Outside the wire fences, the demands increase hugely.

Conversations with soldiers who go on patrol duty are peppered with the initials RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and IED (improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb).

The latter is particularly hated, because there's no way of fighting back against it. Each takes its toll.

Sylvia Ibie, a radiographer with 22 Field Hospital, says every wounded patient is "one of yours coming in".

"You feel like it's your younger brother, and he's injured. You just feel, 'let's do the best you can'. The dedication, the commitment, it's awesome."

But she says: "Several times I've had to rush back to my department and go on my knees in tears because of the casualties that come in, it's got that personal."

'Enjoying Iraq'

So far, so grim. But many soldiers don't see it that way.

Sylvia talks of her "family" at the hospital who support her. For most others too, it's the unit, or even just the next soldier, that keeps them going.

And many find satisfaction in what they call "proper soldiering".

"Who," asked one officer, "would want to go to Bosnia when you could come to Iraq?". He himself was eager to get to Afghanistan.

Some soldiers will speak of "enjoying" their time in Iraq without the slightest suspicion of irony. Sylvia Ibie says her service in Iraq is a "privilege".

But while the soldiers may appreciate each other's worth, they don't feel the public back home fully appreciates them.

They'll say it's not a question of whether or not one supports the British action in Iraq, but rather of supporting the individual men and women who've been called on to do a difficult and dangerous job.

"If a bloke went into his local back home," said the officer who wants to go to Afghanistan, "and the landlord said to him 'you've been in Iraq - have this one on the house,' it would mean the world to him."

Another soldier pointed out that American schools send letters and pictures to their servicemen and women. Some even send them to British soldiers. So where, he wondered, was the British equivalent?

At present, all they have are discordant voices from a distant planet.

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