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Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Thursday, 30 April 2009 11:34 UK
Soldiers reveal Iraq experiences

By Matt Cole
Newsbeat reporter

As the last of the British forces prepare to leave Iraq, three veterans describe the hostilities and problems they faced patrolling the country, and reveal whether they think the conflict was worth it.

Iraq veterans talk to Newsbeat presenter Tulip Mazumdar

In March 2003 MPs voted to send British troops to fight in Iraq.

At first their mission was one of war - toppling Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Then their task was to keep the peace, an ongoing battle to maintain order in the power vacuum that followed the overthrow of the dictator.

In all, 179 British service men and women have died in Iraq.

Jimmy Bristow, James Fitzgerald and Richard Cooper each served several tours in Iraq, both during the initial invasion and in the years which followed.

They say those were very different periods.

'Achieved a lot'

Jimmy, 26, was with the Queens Lancashire Regiment in the initial invasion force in 2003.

"If I knew in 2001 or 2002 when I signed up," he explained, "if I knew they'd be going into Iraq, I'd have still signed up, I'd have still done it.

"Because you see things that change your life. You appreciate things at home more.

Richard Cooper
Richard Cooper during his time with the Royal Armoured Corp

"We didn't find what they said we were going for, but there was a very unstable country with oppression under a dictatorship [where] people were afraid to live their lives.

"Saddam Hussein was a threat to everyone, he could have done anything. So nipping it in the bud when we did - we've done alright doing that, and stopped future bloodshed."

He says life for British soldiers has been quieter over the last few years.

"The first time it was the invasion - it was the war phase.

"We had to clear Basra out of all its weapons, root out insurgents. Set up infrastructure and train a police force.

"The second time there wasn't much going on on the streets. Our job as infantry was to be on the front line, on the streets showing a presence, but for the last two years the lads have just been ready to get out."

'Freedom of movement'

James Fitzgerald, 25, from Harrogate was with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

I think we changed the world. Our generation of soldiers have helped a nation
Jimmy Bristow

"Our peacekeeping experience was different," he said. "We were one of the first to send out a non-armoured peacekeeping vehicle, I was in that troop.

"If it was safe we decided we'd keep doing it. But it was more dangerous, because the rules of engagement changed, you couldn't fire until you were fired on which was often a bit too late."

Richard Cooper, 27, from Birmingham was with the 9th/12th Royal Lancers after the initial conflict had ended.

"When we first got there after the war phase had finished, we could patrol in soft armoured vehicles with soft hats rather than helmets," he explained.

"We got out, we could interface with the people, we had freedom of movement and I believe we achieved a lot."

Troops prepare to leave Basra

However, he says things were different when he returned for another tour of duty.

"Going back in 2006 we were constantly under threat from improvised explosive devices," he explained. "Movement was limited and I don't see we achieved a lot in that second part.

"We sat in base and we got mortared on a regular basis and never got out to interact with the locals, who were turning more and more hostile to us.

"You couldn't really gauge any success throughout that entire six month period.

"You weren't on the streets to gauge people's reactions because the threat level was too high to get out of camp.

"I remember it being very hard work. It was a very hostile place. You felt constantly under threat and oppressed."

Iraqi people's attitude

Jimmy also reckoned that, over time, the attitude of the general Iraqi population changed.

"In 2007 I think they were still annoyed we were still there," he said. "We downsized numbers on the streets and that eased tensions.

Sunbathing soldier
A British soldier sunbathes in the base at Basra Airport

"During the first phase, apart from insurgents, the rest of the people were pleased we'd liberated them.

"But these days they just want their country back. You don't want to see soldiers on the streets with the guns. I wouldn't want that round here."

"During the war, everyone was happy we were there," agreed James. "But then, when I was there a couple of years later, it was like they didn't want us there at all.

"You didn't feel like you were doing anything in the peacekeeping stage. You felt like you were doing your job but that you weren't wanted."

Richard also agreed, but said that most of the Iraqi citizens were courteous.

"Seventy per cent of the time their responses was quite good," he said. "Kids coming up asking for sweets and bottled water, the men watching you go past but not interacting. The other 30% throw stones and abuse and just disregard you."

'A worthy cause'

Despite their concerns over the Iraqi population's attitude to them, all three agree the British involvement in Iraq has changed the country for the better.

Bulldog APC
A Bulldog Armoured Personnel Carrier on one of its final patrols

"I feel the lads have done well," explained Jimmy. "It was a worthy cause. We've changed the world. We've made a country that didn't have a future have a future."

"We gave them a a better standard of living," said Richard, "and I'm proud for the boys coming home."

"I think we changed the world," added Jimmy. "Our generation of soldiers have helped a nation. When we rolled in from Kuwait they had nothing.

"We've set up the infrastructure for them. The police works, the government works, the army works, they've now got a chance of rebuilding their country."

'A good job'

As British troops begin their final pull-out, the crucial question, though, is was everything achieved in Iraq worth 179 British lives?

Jimmy Bristow isn't sure.

"I can't speak for the soldiers who aren't here now," he said. "But I think there isn't a cause on the planet that is worth 179 British lives, so in that sense it's not worth it.

"But you'd have to ask their families. If I hadn't come back from that first phase I'd like to think my family would have been proud, and would think I'd done something worthwhile to help someone."

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