Long days in desert for troops waiting to go home
In the first of a three-day special series of reports from inside Iraq, Deborah McAleese speaks to the Commanding Officer of the Irish Guards based in Basra
There is a sense of tentative excitement among Ulster soldiers at the front line in Basra as they count down the days to when they can finally return home from war.
With just six weeks left to go before the men and women of the Irish Guards, many of whom are from Northern Ireland, finally leave Iraq, spirits are high within their camp 13km outside the city centre.
However, in the oppressive heat of the barren Iraqi desert and still living under the constant threat of mortar attacks, gunfire and roadside bombs, the days and nights can be long.
And Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards, Lieutenant Colonel Michael O'Dwyer, has warned there is still a lot of hard work to be done before his men finally pack up for home.
"We were the battle group responsible for developing the Iraqi army but, when we arrived, the security situation in Basra was not as it is at the moment. As a result, much of the focus of all of the troops here in the Brigade was in striking into the city and trying to detain the militiamen.
"Recently that has changed and now we have the opportunity to focus much more on developing the Iraqi army.
"It has been a really great progression for the Irish Guard battle group but where perhaps others started very busy and have now become less busy, we have done it exactly the other way around and are getting busier."
To help with the transitional period when control will be handed back to the Iraqi security services, local soldiers are preparing to take part in joint operations with the Iraqi army in Basra.
They will provide assistance to the Iraqi army and police when there is a specific threat to oil fields or infrastructure in the Basra area, something which Lieutenant Colonel O'Dwyer admits takes a great deal of trust.
"Most of the Iraqi army in Basra do their operations in the city and we no longer go into the city. But we are developing now the next step, which is to conduct some joint operations and certainly, if there were specific threats to oil fields or infrastructure, then we would be looking to help them to certain degrees.
"This does require an element of trust. You are never as popular as you think you are and you never would trust implicitly, but there are some very close relationships formed and some very capable soldiers."
The Commanding Officer said that, over the past couple of months, his men have witnessed a great transformation in the security situation in Iraq.
"At the moment we are not in Basra city and we are not going back in on a daily basis and things are pretty calm. They are not calm like Belfast calm but they are pretty calm compared to before, and that is because the security forces, the army and the police on the whole are managing to contain the violence.
"I think since we withdrew from Basra Palace there have been two major incidents - a suicide bomb at a police station and the bombing of a mosque. Those are horrific and sad but nothing symptomatic with the streets of Basra being on fire or out of control.
"It should be pointed out we (the British forces) are not leaving in two months time and so we will continue to develop the Iraqi army. This is one of the focuses we will have once provincial Iraqi control is declared. We will no longer be responsible for the security but we will be responsible for continuing to contribute to training and as to whether they are going to be able to handle security."
When asked how the troops are remaining in such high spirits, Lieutenant Colonel O'Dwyer said: "I'm fortunate to have a battalion full of fun-loving Irish men. We are soon going home and are very much looking forward to it."