Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

UK troops in festive mood in Iraq

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, in Basra

 Iraqi soldiers in Basra
There is mutual respect, not fighting, between the Iraq and British armies

A group of recruits stand stiffly to attention at their passing-out parade on a parade ground in the centre of a burnt-out, bombed military academy in Basra.

Their uniforms are a hotch-potch of different desert camouflage, but all stand with pride as they are awarded their end-of-course medals.

These are Iraqi soldiers, junior NCOs (non-commissioned officers), passing out under the watchful eyes of their British army mentors from the Queen's Royal Hussars (QRH), who look on with equal pride.

"They're every bit as good as some of ours - and some of them are better," says the Regimental Sergeant Major Ian Hammond.

Few of the young Iraqis speak much English, but the two sides seem to share a common military language.

There is a real sense of achievement here, and mutual respect between two armies which only five years ago stood to fight against one another.

British back-up

The training of Iraq's new army will be one of Britain's lasting legacies in Basra.

One recruit, Sgt Adel al-Baidhani, even wants his British mentors to stay on longer.

His ears were cut off on the orders of Saddam Hussein as a punishment for deserting the Iraqi army in the 1990s. A British plastic surgeon later helped repair the damage, offering pioneering surgery.

Sgt al-Baidhani has just been given the passing-out prize for being the best young sergeant. He was keen to join the new army.

"The Iraqi army is strong now, and it has good leadership but it's not ready to defend the country on its own yet.

When we talk to the young lads who are being trained, they help us and we help them out

Trooper Dean Hammond

"So we need the British to stay here as a back-up, as friendly forces, until our army is fully equipped and ready," he says, before having his photo taken with his mentors.

Despite the smell of sewage that seeps through to the parade ground, the British trainers are in good spirits.

A lone kettle is boiling in one of the blasted-out concrete rooms, and we are offered a cup of tea.

Sgt Maj Hammond is working alongside his son, Trooper Dean Hammond, who celebrated his 21st birthday here in Iraq recently.

Both are in the same regiment and both will be spending Christmas away from home.

"This is my last tour - I leave the army in July," says Sgt Maj Hammond.

"It's Dean's first tour, so it's a little tricky for my wife, his mum Caroline, to make do back at home with our other son Lee, but she keeps us in parcels and letters and she's doing a good job.

Passing-out parade in Basra
Training Iraq's new army will be one of Britain's lasting legacies in Basra

"Working with my dad here has its ups and downs," admits Dean.

"The downside is that if I get into trouble with him at work, I just have to take it - though my mates enjoy that. I call him 'Sir', just as everyone else does."

Both are looking forward to the QRH barbecue on Christmas Day, although Dean says he will be missing both his wife and his mother on the day. But both men say they feel the job they are doing has been well worth it.

"The Iraqi people have been really good to us. When we talk to the young lads who are being trained, they help us and we help them out," says Dean.

The welcome for us is warmer now, and when we leave in a few months I think the Iraqi army will be fine
Lance Corporal Alan Massey

"They've become quite good friends, and we are here till the job is done."

Then we are taken into Basra, to see the city for ourselves, and how much security has improved since March this year, when the Iraqi army went in to take on the Shia militias.

In the Mastiff armoured vehicle with us, every soldier has a nickname. We are with "Twiggy" and "Ficey" amongst others, and there is a constant good-natured joshing between them.

Nobody here seems to mind being so far away from home at Christmas, though they admit they will miss their families.

Queen and country

Lance Corporal Alan "Fergie" Massey, 26, from the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, says he looked forward to coming to Iraq.

"My family don't mind me being away for Christmas too much. Hopefully after this tour, we won't be back in Iraq.

"I was here on Operation Telic 1, the first operation in 2003. Coming back now - on Telic 13 - things have changed a lot.

"House prices are going up in Basra and the area is changing for the good. The welcome for us is warmer now, and when we leave in a few months I think the Iraqi army will be fine."

British troops in Basra
The camaraderie keeps troops in high spirits as Christmas approaches

He says he is likely to be deployed to Afghanistan next. So does that bother him?

"The main reason I joined the army was to fight for Queen and country, and it's our job to go for it.

"Most people join up to make a difference, and I think we can."

Back at Basra air station, where most of the UK's 4,000 troops are based, preparations for the British military's sixth Christmas in Iraq are well under way.

The post office is busier than ever, ensuring that the vital parcels and letters from home are distributed in time.

Meanwhile commanders make sure the Christmas boxes are ready to take out to the units outside the base, a tradition begun by Queen Mary during World War I to raise the troops' morale in the trenches.

Yet morale here seems high, even though all are far from home. There are few complaints from any of the men and women serving in Basra during the festive season.

Sophie, 37, from the RAF, says Christmas time here is simply different to being at home.

"The military is like a big family - there is a real sense of camaraderie. Yes, you miss family and friends, but it's still fun."

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