Page last updated at 20:42 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Iraqi army 'ready and able'

Paul Adams
BBC News, in Basra

Boy watches convoy
The Iraqi army descends on Az-Zubeir

In the first entry of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams joins British troops on a raid near Basra as they witness the progress made by the Iraqi Army.

Up before dawn as word comes of an Iraqi army search operation at Az-Zubeir, south east of the city.

The operation involves 50 Iraqi Army Brigade, who our British hosts from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment are mentoring, so we are invited along to watch.

We race through the deserted streets of Iraq's second largest city, not really knowing what the morning will hold.

The British MiTTs (Military Transition Teams) are not here to direct Iraqi army operations - those days are long gone - but to observe and offer discreet advice.

To keep a low profile, the Brits leave their imposing Mastiff armoured personnel carriers behind and ride in soft-skinned Iraqi jeeps.

They do not want to draw attention to themselves, a lesson from the days when highly visible British soldiers became a magnet for militia attacks.

The job of "mitting" will end soon, probably well before the final British departure date of 31 July, and this certainly feels like the beginning of the end.

Help and equipment

Britain's role in training and mentoring the 14th Iraqi army division is almost done. As this morning's display shows, the Iraqis are organising and conducting their own operations with minimal British support.

To be sure, an RAF Lynx flies up and down the road as we near az-Zubeir, and an occasional whine gives away the presence overhead of a tiny British drone, a Desert Hawk.

Britain is still providing the sort of help and equipment the reconstituted Iraqi armed forces cannot muster.


They've got it pretty well locked down

Maj Adrian Grinonneau

But as the true size of the raid becomes apparent, causing astonishment among the British soldiers watching, it seems clear the Iraqi army is operating with considerable confidence.

Or at least that is the impression it hopes to convey.

As the sun comes up over the desert, our convoy stretches as far as the eye can see.

It seems that 14 Division has thrown almost everything it has into the operation.

It unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace, with several U-turns and, when we reach the town, a lot of standing around. But the British are still impressed.

"They've got it pretty well locked down," remarks Maj Adrian Grinonneau as we pass street after street blocked off by armoured vehicles and well-armed Iraqi troops.

Iraqis and British mentors inspect weapons
Iraqis and their British mentors inspect seized weapons

"This is unprecedented from our viewpoint," he says as more and more troops arrive.

And to emphasise that, this is an Iraqi operation through and through. He adds: "We're not giving them guidance, we're not giving them direction. Operationally, they're mustard [sharp]."

The search, in a dirt poor town with a reputation for lawlessness and violence, yields dozens of weapons, from an ageing Sten gun to an assortment of Kalashnikovs. More than 120 weapons in all.

Some of the house searches look a little staged for our camera and the town's sleepy atmosphere seems at odds with the overwhelming military presence.

But with just five days to go before Iraq's important provincial elections, it seems the army is glad and able to make a big statement. And for the watching Brits, that means that it'll soon be time to go home.



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