Page last updated at 09:33 GMT, Thursday, 30 April 2009 10:33 UK
UK combat operations end in Iraq

By Gavin Hewitt
BBC News, Basra

Rifleman on patrol near Basra
A Rifleman makes his last combat operational patrol

It is the patrol every soldier longs for and yet fears. The last patrol. Soldiers from 2nd platoon, A Company, 5 Rifles, were leaving their base for the last time.

They walked along a mud-baked ridge beside the Qarmet Ali waterway and headed for a village they had visited many times before.

When they arrived they were surprised to find Iraqi forces there without the knowledge of the British patrol.

It turned out that the Iraqis were escorting some of the Americans who will be taking over patrolling from the British.

On the way into the village Major Jim Faux had told me that many of the villagers were anxious about the imminent arrival of American forces. Some ran to hide if they thought they were heading to the village.

Much of their anxiety was based on stories they had heard that, as the Major said, portrayed the Americans as Ninja turtles in their body armour and Oakley glasses.

As the British patrol spoke to the Iraqis they learnt that the Americans had accidentally knocked down a power cable. Major Vaux spoke to his American opposite number.

"The village", he said, "was very tense" after the incident and the power cable had to be repaired very quickly. The Americans agreed but it revealed how fragile the trust was between occupiers and ordinary Iraqis.

Inside the village we spoke to a man who was clearly respected. He liked the British. "They were good people", he told me, "but they should leave, we now have our own army".

The British patrol left the village for the last time. They were escorted out by a gaggle of children. No one else came to say farewell. I thought I heard some young men say '"leave, leave".

Such is the lot of the occupier.

Pride and reflection

Riflemen organise their equipment
Riflemen clean their weapons as their mission draws to a close

The unit operated from Forward Operational Base Oxford which seemed like a semi-abandoned outpost in the old American base.

All day soldiers had been breaking the base down. Anything that could not be taken was burned on a fire that smoked blackly over the waterway.

The men from Doncaster, Leeds and Fiji were irrepressible as they formed a line to pass along and stack bottles of water. It was the excitement of going home.

Later the helicopters swooped in, picking up the equipment which could be salvaged and carrying it away in giant nets slung underneath. The soldiers took photos.

Most of them were proud of what they had done. They believed they had given the Iraqis an opportunity to build a different future.

Most of them had a mild regret that the recent months had been so quiet. Some of the soldiers had never seen action and that rankled with them, to be untested, to never know how they would have reacted in those moments of high danger.

Some were looking forward to a possible posting to Afghanistan in two years time. Recruitment is up. Iraq has not deterred new recruits.

And yet as the bugler played sunset and the company flag was lowered I looked into some of the young faces.

A few had taken time to reflect on the cost, on the lives lost and in their faces could be read what serving in Iraq had demanded of them.

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