Gethin Chamberlain in Az Zubayr, Iraq, for The Scotsman, 20 April 2004
IN THE darkness by the side of the road, Robert Grieve’s Land Rover rolled over and over, bullets ripping through it and out the other side.
The rocket-propelled grenade had hit the tyre and bounced off, but the force of the blast had tipped the vehicle over. As it came to rest, Grieve leaned forward just as his driver leaned back. In that moment, a bullet flashed between them, where their heads had been a second earlier.
As the bullets continued to whizz past, the pair crawled out into the dirt and made a fighting retreat, taking it in turns to fire and move until they were 200 metres away. Then they held their ground, and waited for help.
Grieve escaped with a small shrapnel wound to his arm. Another soldier with him was not so lucky; he was flown home for treatment after a piece of shrapnel struck him in the eye.
That incident happened last week, just north of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, but until today it has gone unreported. That comes as no surprise to the soldiers serving with British forces in Iraq; it is one of many that pass unnoticed by the outside world. A few days earlier, another soldier opened the door of his vehicle only for an RPG to hurtle through the opening and punch a hole through the other side.
Improvised explosive devices hidden by the roadside go off every couple of days. A fierce firefight in the town of Al Amarah last Sunday, during which four British soldiers were injured, went unreported anywhere apart from in The Scotsman.
Troops who could once travel around Iraq in soft headgear now wear body armour and helmets if they venture out, and they travel everywhere with gunners standing in the back of their vehicles scouring the countryside for potential attackers.
British soldiers say they are fighting a forgotten war in the south of the country, sustaining about 50 casualties every month. They report that in recent weeks attacks have become increasingly organised and determined.
British forces are taking significant casualties. According to the Ministry of Defence, between 7 February last year and 31 March this year, 2,228 injured military personnel were evacuated out of the theatre of operations, a figure equivalent to two of the battle groups involved in the capture of Basra last April.
Of those, 1,885 were from the army, 226 from the RAF, 67 from the marines and 50 from the navy. The casualties also included non-combat injuries such as road accidents, but the figures do not cover injuries which were treated by unit medics, or soldiers who were able to return to action.
Since George Bush declared that major combat operations were over, 26 British soldiers have died: 12 in action, ten from accidents and four from illness or natural causes. Up to 1 May last year, 17 died in accidents, seven were killed by friendly fire, six died as a result of enemy action, two were killed by what the MoD describes as “explosive incidents” and one died of natural causes.
In comparison, the US has lost 706 soldiers, with 2,374 injured in action and evacuated and another 1,256 returning to action after being wounded.
One sign of the seriousness of the situation is the decision to retain a tank force in the country until the position improves.
Officers fear it could get much worse. They are desperately concerned about the American handling of the rebel Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, fearing that it could undermine their successes in training the new Iraqi police force and army to take over responsibility for security after the 30 June handover.
Privately, some senior officers believe they would no longer be able to control their areas of the country if the Americans attack Sadr in Najaf and spark off widespread unrest in the Shia heartland in the south. One said the success of Britain’s mission in Iraq, and the safety of its troops in the country, hinged on the US handling of events in Najaf.
“If things go wrong in Najaf, I seriously believe that we will begin to take casualties in the south on an American scale,” he said.
British officers want the Americans to leave Sadr alone for now, and have told them so.
“Just let him stay in the mosque,” one officer said. “Sadr’s militia is anathema to the new Iraq. He is isolated in Najaf, just leave him there. There may be a warrant out for his arrest, but he is virtually a prisoner anyway.
“Why not just let the Iraqi police arrest him when they are strong enough?”
But the Americans have insisted repeatedly that Sadr will be arrested on a warrant issued last year for the murder of the moderate Shia cleric Majid al Khoie and other offences, including stealing money collected from mosques, and many British officers fear that would have catastrophic consequences in the Shia strongholds in the south. Reluctant to talk publicly, they say privately that they would be unable to maintain security in the face of a Shia uprising.
“I know if that happened I would not be able to dominate the ground here any longer,” one said. “We would be able to hold our positions, but we would be taking significant casualties.”
The scale of British casualties has prompted heated arguments between those at the sharp end, who have warned about the dangers of losing control, and those in command. British troops are currently sustaining casualties at the rate of about 50 a month, and on one day in March there were seven casualties in Amarah alone. On another day last month, 16 soldiers were injured in Basra. The figures do not include those for road accidents and other non-combat injuries.
Soldiers regularly return fire, with informal statistics showing that, between the beginning of February and the first week of April, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders alone fired off 1,300 rounds of 5.56mm ammunition from their SA80 rifles, 150 rounds of 7.62mm heavy machine-gun ammunition, and nine rounds from underslung grenade-launchers.
They recorded seven casualties and 13 enemy casualties. Unofficial reports indicated up to 21 enemy combatants killed in one incident on 5 March. During the latter incident, the troops came under fire from small arms, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and satchel charges.
In Amarah, the British base comes under regular attack from mortar and rocket fire. Another base just outside the town, used by the new Iraqi Civil Defence Corps, also faces regular attacks.
Troops have been engaged in fierce gun battles with militia loyal to al Sadr – including one on Sunday in which the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jonny Gray, was pinned down with some of his men for more than an hour – and are taking regular casualties.
In the town of Al Zubayr – where troops and militia loyal to Saddam Hussein put up fierce resistance to the British last year – attacks are on the increase. An 81mm mortar base plate and another for a 120mm mortar were recently found near the British base in the town, Camp Chindit, and troops have been wearing body armour and helmets inside the camp after dark.
Militia forces in the area have been using increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices against troops, and there have also been fierce gunfights in the town, with the base commander reporting that the militia seem to be getting more organised and determined.
In one incident, troops launched a full-scale platoon attack on a heavily fortified building where the militia had built bunkers and returned fire throughout the attack until they were forced to abandon their position, fighting all the way.
In and around Basra, there are regular attacks on British troops. Last Saturday, two Territorial Army soldiers were shot in the city and in another attack a soldier lost a leg when his Land Rover was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Troops report regular ambushes and attacks using explosive devices at the roadside.
The official line, though, remains unchanged: the south is quiet and stable. There will be no more troops sent out, Tony Blair said after the Basra bombs this week, because there is no need for them. Britain, he said, could operate a “soft-hat” policy because it was not operating in the areas of fiercest resistance. That may once have been true, but it is not a picture those on the ground recognise any more.