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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 April, 2004, 16:57 GMT 17:57 UK
The East's peace keepers in Iraq
Alex Dunlop
BBC Look East

With the tension and violence growing in Iraq, BBC reporter Alex Dunlop gives a first-hand account of life in Basra for the soldiers from eastern England and their part in the handover of power.
Alex Dunlop
The BBC's Alex Dunlop joins a patrol in Iraq
It's when they turn out all the lights on the Hercules that I begin to feel that I shouldn't be here.

It's the early hours of the morning and we are at 10,000ft over Iraq, coming into land at Basra.

In the gloom, I pick out two of the plane's crew peering out of the windows, looking for surface to air missiles.

An hour later on the ground, I am issued with body armour and a helmet. Subsequently on every sortie into the surrounding countryside, I'll have to notify each patrol of my blood group.

That is the reality of life on the ground for the soldiers and aircrews from our region in southern Iraq. Most are posted there for about four months.

Preventing attacks

From 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment in Colchester, to Tornado aircrew at Marham in Norfolk, about 800 personnel from the East of England make up about a tenth of the British military based in or near Basra.

The UK is among 13 nations here - from Poland to Romania - who are trying to keep the peace and help rebuild the country.

As Sergeant Joseph Hopper, from Thetford, briefs 13 members of the RAF's II Squadron, I load my camera kit into one of three armoured land rovers.

The 130 men from RAF Honington in Suffolk have been out in Basra since January. Their primary role is to protect the airport and planes from attack, but often their task is to patrol outlying villages.

Soldier on patrol in Basra
Soldiers are trying to win the "hearts and minds" of the people
An hour later, Sgt Hopper drinks tea with local Iraqis, gathering "low level intelligence: "What is the crime rate? Have there been any suspicious vehicle movements? Did any boats come up the river last night?"

Apart from the questions, he and his men are trying to "win hearts and minds".

The villagers, while genuinely pleased to welcome the RAF Gunners into their homes, are still depressed about the kidnapping, gun running and tribal feuds which are almost part of daily life in the region.

They seem unconvinced that UK soldiers and politicians can really solve the tide of crime and lawlessness.

The officer commanding II Squadron, Squadron Leader Jamie Kendall is only too aware of the dilemma.

British deaths

"The guys have to play a variety of roles, as policemen, peacekeepers and diplomats".

For men and women from eastern England, the situation out here is tense, but they do not show it.

In the three days I spend with them, three British soldiers were injured by bricks after a crowd set upon them. Two days later three more were injured - one seriously - when their vehicle was blown up by an improvised explosive device.

But the biggest loss was suffered in the summer of 2003 when six Royal Military Policemen (RMP) from 156 Provo Company, were brutally killed by a riotous mob.

The garrison town of Colchester where they were based, was numbed by their deaths

Iraqi police practise handcuffing
One of the jobs of the RMP is to teach Iraq's new police force
Ten months on, their colleagues are carrying on the task, training up 5,000 men to become the new Iraqi Police Force.

I spent a day with Corporal Steve Whiten from Clacton as his team showed the new recruits how to handcuff suspects.

But it is not just new techniques the men must learn, it is a whole new culture of policing.

Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Chris Dougall, said: "In the past the Iraqi police would sit on street corners waiting for the problem to come to them. We're trying to get them out into the community."

Unanswered questions

It is a noble aspiration, but not only are the RMPs trying to revamp the local police force, they have to ensure it is more or less in place by 30 June. That is when power is to be handed back to the Iraqis.

It is a tall order.

As the tension and violence racks up, many questions in this war-torn country remain unanswered.

The only certainty for Colchester's RMPs and Honington's gunners - is that they expect to be back home by summer.

But there is a fear soldiers and aircrews from eastern England will still have a presence here for months or even years to come.

I was just relieved to hand in my flack-jacket after four days in Iraq.

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