Page last updated at 23:53 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 00:53 UK
UK combat operations end in Iraq

A British soldier on patrol in Iraqi village of Harat Qariya

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

British troops tasked with patrolling the marshlands around Basra reflect on their time in Iraq as their mission ends.

From a distance, the forward operating base is all but invisible amid the marshland around Basra; a few crumbled mud-brick buildings rise above the reeds and sandy ground.

As you approach, you can just make out some camouflage netting, and a small camp-fire outside surrounded by sandbags, where a few soldiers sit eating straight from their ration packs.

Life here is basic in the extreme for the 30 or so men and one female medic here. The lavatory is a bucket in a crumbling outbuilding, with a plastic bag for every visit, with the laconic instruction from one soldier to "burn after use" on a fire away from the camp.

This is one of the last forward operating bases, named Forward Operating Base Oxford, though nobody can remember why it was first given this code-name.

Muddy waters

The men of A Company, 5 Rifles, are preparing to go out onto the waterways in small boats for the second patrol of the day through the surrounding villages.

British soldier on boat on way to patrol an Iraqi village
The British troops who patrol the marshlands will be replaced by Americans

They are gathering intelligence to prevent rocket attacks on the main coalition military base, and prevent any remaining insurgents using the cover of the marshes as a launching ground for such attacks.

This time last year, the main British base was rocketed almost 30 times one month. Now, it is far quieter, though one civilian was killed by an attack in March on the main base.

Today, the only others using the waterways are local fishermen in long shallow fishing boats, dragging out their nets, and water buffalo ambling through the muddy waters.

The fishermen take little notice of our small boat as it lands upstream at the village of Qarat Hariya, where more than 20 children run out to greet the patrol. They clamour for the boiled sweets they know are kept in the soldiers' ration packs, and fight over the sweets as they are handed out by a military translator from Kuwait, who chats to them in Arabic.

The young man in charge of the platoon is Capt Charlie King. He wants to let the villagers know that the British soldiers who have patrolled here will soon be gone, with US forces coming in to the region instead.

Iraq casualties graphic

"Some of them know the British are leaving, and some don't and a lot of them aren't really fussed," he says.

"Some may be sad that we're leaving, and they know Americans will do things slightly differently, so that may take some getting used to."

One villager comes forward to say he would like British forces to remain in the area.

"They're friendly, and we feel more comfortable dealing with them than Americans," he tells me. "I think the Americans will be more aggressive, from what I've heard."

The satellite dishes on the small houses and a newly-paved road suggest some improvements to living standards over the past few years, though the villagers are far from prosperous.

This is a part of Iraq that has long suffered neglect, near to the marshes that were drained under Saddam Hussein, forcing many of the Marsh Arabs into poverty in the city of Basra and the surrounding provinces.

The poor Shia Muslims of the region were seen as his enemies, but here not all were happy to see foreign soldiers on their soil after his regime was toppled.

One older man spots the British platoon and comes forward to put in a voluble complaint via the translator.

He says his roof was damaged by a flare let off by a British helicopter, and he never received compensation despite putting in a claim. He pulls up a trouser leg to reveal that the leg beneath is missing, blown off in 1991, though whether by a mine left behind in that conflict or the long years of war between Iran and Iraq is not clear.

Capt King promises to see what he can do about compensation, as another village elder comes to complain about a wall damaged by a helicopter flare.

This time on the base we were able to eat in peace, and not keep diving under the tables
L/Cpl Russell Potter

The children challenge the British soldiers to an impromptu volleyball match - a scene unthinkable even a year or so ago, when militias controlled much of Basra and the surrounding areas.

For much of the previous six years, being friendly to coalition forces could be lethal.

Maj James Faux, of 5 Rifles, says it all feels very different now. He remembers the bitter fighting in Al Amara, on a previous tour in 2004 with the Light Infantry, when his forces came under constant attack - often from young men not much older than the boys playing here today.

"It's a good feeling, walking around here now. I do think we have achieved something," he says.

'Optimism' for future

When the patrol gets back to the forward operating base, many of the soldiers drenched in mud, the men jump into the river to get clean.

Spirits are high, with a sense of a mission finally drawing to a close. Few want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the war itself, though many have lost friends or seen them badly injured in the worst of the fighting.

Most have their own private opinions on the way the war was conducted, though often ones they would rather not share in public.

So in their final days in Basra, do they feel it was worth it? Rifleman Richard Herrington has mixed feelings.

"Sometimes not, obviously, but sometimes we have made a difference and it's good that we've stayed here," he says, as he washes out a muddy boot filled with dank water.

Soldier at marshland base drenched in mud
There is a "sense of a mission finally drawing to a close"

"If we'd have left sooner, it would have been a bad situation, but at least we've stayed and done something."

L/Cpl Russell Potter says he is optimistic about Iraq's future now, and that this has been a much more relaxed tour of duty for all of them than their last.

"What stands out most for me is being at the main camp in Basra, the COB (contingency operating base) on the last tour, and coming under constant rocket attack," he adds.

"This time on the base we were able to eat in peace, and not keep diving under the tables when the sirens went off."

As dusk falls and darkness envelops the camp, lit only by two small fires to heat the ration packs, all you can hear are the guttural sounds of the bull-frogs in the reeds, and some quiet banter from the soldiers over what they'll do when they finally get back home. "Have a beer" is the general consensus.

For the British army, Iraq has proved a long test of strength and endurance, sometimes stretching both to the limit.

But as British military operations draw to a close, there is a sense of quiet satisfaction for many of the soldiers here that since they arrived in November, not a single shot has been fired in anger, and the area they have patrolled is at last more peaceful than it has been for several years.

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