The Black Watch’s commanding officer shuns armour to find out the views of Iraqis on the streets of Zubayr.
Gethin Chamberlain, in Iraq, for The Daily Telegraph, 2 April 2003.
TAM-o’-shanter perched atop his head, pistol secured in its holster on his belt, steel-rimmed glasses pushed back on to the bridge of his nose, Lt Col Mike Riddell-Webster, commanding officer of the Black Watch, is striding ahead through the crowded market place in the centre of the town of Zubayr.
Yesterday this street was thought still too dangerous to drive down in a soft-skinned Land Rover, but the CO has decided enough is enough.
After days of sitting back and watching his troops come under attack from militiamen armed with mortars, AK47s and rocket propelled grenades, he has decided that he and his men are not going to be forced to hide behind the safety of the armour-plate of their Warriors any longer.
The order has gone out that the Black Watch is going to patrol the streets of Zubayr on foot.
The dozen or so officers and infantrymen chosen to accompany the CO on the first sortie into the town have been told that they can keep their helmets on if they wish, but he will be donning his “tam” with the distinctive red hackle of the Scottish regiment.
A quintessentially British moment.
It is a fine morning, the temperature already soaring to the high 20s. On the streets, Warrior crews keep watch over the entrances to the town. Challenger 2 tanks stand on the open ground which sprawls in front of the market place, guns pointed into the open country beyond.
Out of the gate stride the British officers, the CO in the lead, chatting earnestly to the man by his side, divisional staff officer Lt Col Roger Warren, a fluent Arabic speaker.
They stroll forward side by side, two men apparently without a care in the world, heading towards the blue-domed mosque, past the place where the mortars fell and scattered the crowd gathered for the first attempt to distribute aid last week, heading straight for the centre of the town.
Those gathered round the lorries loaded with tomatoes look up, bemused, as the men approach, but the CO does not break his stride. Hand outstretched, he greets the first wary Iraqis on the edge of the gathering.
The crowd parts and engulfs the men, the soldiers given the thankless task of protecting a man apparently determined to place himself at maximum risk trying to hold back the curious throng.
Hands in his pockets now, the CO listens as Lt Col Warren addresses the crowd. They are not there to hurt anyone, he tells them, they are there to help the people of the town.
Around them, the crowd is growing in number, children pushing between the men, eager to see these strange foreign soldiers in their unfamiliar hats who have appeared in their town and driven out the other army.
Now the crowd has found its voice. They talk all at once, gesturing with their hands, pointing to their mouths. Water is the important thing, Lt Col Warren tells the CO. “They say they want water.”
“It is coming soon,” the CO assures them. “We understand.”
The men jabber at him again. The electricity is broken, they say. A team of engineers is on its way to fix it, the CO replies. He wants to know if there are any water engineers in the crowd, someone who can tell him where the water pumps can be found, how to switch them back on.
Lt Col Warren translates, but the men are talking over each other, each with his own point to make. A man with a luxuriant moustache and pristine white jelabbah shoves his way to the front. People have been taken prisoner by the British, he says. The British are too aggressive, with all their tanks and their guns.
He is angry, little flecks of spittle glistening on his moustache, shouting and waving his hands. The people are afraid of all the troops, he says.
Hands on hips, the CO leans his head forward to listen to the translation, Lt Col Warren breaking off to shush the crowd, snapping crossly at a man trying to tug on his sleeve, telling him to wait and listen.
Eventually, the CO looks up. There is no need to be afraid of us, he tells the man. Once the shooting has stopped we are here to be your friends. The people must learn to trust the British, they are here to help.
But the men are not convinced. They are still afraid because the British are here, they say. The boss of the water engineers is afraid of the British, he is afraid to come out. Everyone is desperate for water. The crowd is pressing in tighter still, the soldiers struggling to maintain even the smallest space around their officers, people pressing in from all sides, no room to move arms or legs.
They are surrounded by a mass of humanity, all clamouring for water. Men with their scarves wrapped around their faces, only their suspicious eyes showing through a narrow gap.
Each newcomer says the same thing. They need water, they must have water. They have not had water to drink or wash in for days. The heat and the smell of so many bodies crushed together tell their own story.
Lt Col Warren listens, interrupting occasionally, soaking up their anger.
They are still afraid, he tells the CO, whatever I say to them. We have got to get through this fear, he tells the CO, but it is going to be difficult. They are afraid of us and they are afraid of what will happen to them if we go away.
They say that the old regime has not gone away, just moved to Basra. When the British leave, he explains, the people fear that the Ba’ath party will be back.
The CO tries again. There will be no problem and there is no need to be afraid as long as the militia go away, he says. The old regime is not coming back.
We are here to stay, he says. There has been regime change. They have had a difficult regime for 30 years, but now it is gone.
He catches the eye of the nearest soldier and a path is cleared, those behind the CO are eased aside to allow him passage, on again towards the centre of the town.
As he walks, the CO is lost in thought.
Further along, a restaurant, its windows shattered. The men want compensation. One says his car was destroyed by a tank. He was in it, he says, but he survived.
The CO looks him up and down but the man shows no signs of injury. You were lucky, he tells him. My men were being shot at, he says. A week ago there was war and we were fighting.
He walks on, unconvinced by their entreaties. This is the street where D Company faced a real battle, he recalls. They were being hit with rocket-propelled grenades from all sides.
It is not so surprising that there was some damage. They want compensation, but that’s not the game he is in, he tells them.
On Monday, when they drove down the street, many of the shops were still closed, the CO says, but now they are open again, life is returning to normal.
A man stops him, tells him everything is good, or would be, if only they had water. Be patient, the CO says, be patient. He asks what the man thinks of the town. He wants to ask him what he thinks of the regime but Lt Col Warren warns that there are too many people around for the man’s own good if he answers honestly. The man tells him it is a peaceful area but people are afraid.
Everyone is afraid of you, he tells the British officers, pointing to the rubble left by the fighting. The fighting is over now, the CO says.
Another man pushes forward. Friends, he begins, they are afraid for themselves, not of the British. He glares at the first man. They want a new regime. Welcome, welcome, he says.
Inside the hospital are lines of women, clutching babies, waiting to be seen by the one doctor who is left.
He is angry, frustrated. No one can help him, he says. He helps himself. In his smart grey trousers with a neat crease, his cardigan and clean shirt, he is working behind a table across the doorway to the consulting room. He has told the soldiers he needs water and electricity but has everything else he needs. This is a medical centre. He has to see more than 100 people a day. He is the only GP here. He is exhausted, he says.
The CO offers him doctors. The doctor tells him there are Iraqi doctors but they are in Basra and can’t get to the hospital. He is calming down. He says his name is Dr Basl and that if there is an engineer who can help then that might be good.
The CO says things will get better and Dr Basl wonders whether that is a promise. He apologises for having nothing to offer his visitors to drink. He says he knows the British like their tea, but he has none.
Outside, the CO gets on to the radio, calling for engineers and for water to be brought to the hospital. A child trots past, pulling an empty can of baby milk on a piece of string as a toy.
The CO walks on down the street, past more dirty build- ings, a cat sitting watching from a rooftop, past rugs slung over walls to air, past more people clamouring for water.
And finally he is at the end of the street. The crowd is drifting away and the CO turns to survey the town.
He says what is on his mind: “Water is everything now. It is win or lose in this town. We are going to win or lose this by getting them water.”