Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Ulster's brave fighters deserve uniform praise

Northern Ireland service personnel fought with distinction in the coalition that brought down Saddam. We should remember them, writes Richard Doherty

Shock and awe' is a phrase the world became familiar with 10 years ago as a US-led coalition invaded Iraq to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Although 'shock and awe', or 'rapid dominance' to the US military, is claimed as a relatively new strategic concept dating from 1996, it was really a rebranding of much older strategic theory.

Similar ideas from British armoured warfare theorists in the 1920s were adopted by the Germans with considerable success.

Genghis Khan would have recognised the concept. He, too, practised it. Indeed, the Mongols once conquered Baghdad. And, of course, long before that, as Byron wrote: "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold."

Included in the coalition forces invading Iraq was a large British contingent. About 46,000 British personnel were involved in one of the largest deployments since the Second World War, Operation Telic.

The UK ground forces were from 1st Armoured Division. Of that division's three fighting brigades, two included Irish units: 1st Irish Guards, the 'Micks', in 7 Armoured Brigade (the Desert Rats) and 1st Royal Irish Regiment in 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Both battalions recruit mainly from Northern Ireland, with many personnel from the Republic and Irish communities in Britain.

The British force, directed on Basra, achieved its aims quickly. Iraqi forces, although large in number, were disorganised, badly led and suffering the full effects of 'shock and awe' on their command and communications.

But there was resistance and the Irish Guards suffered two fatalities in Basra. One was Lance Corporal Ian Malone, a piper, a native of Dublin. The other was Piper Chris Muzvuru, a Zimbabwean, who had become the regiment's first black piper. Both 'Micks' were killed in action on April 6, 2003.

Ian Malone was buried in Dublin, with a contingent of uniformed Irish Guardsmen at his Requiem Mass. These were the first uniformed British soldiers to parade in Dublin since 1922.

In contrast, Piper Muzvuru was declared a 'traitor' by the Zimbabwean government and was buried in secret.

The contribution of the Royal Irish to Operation Telic is probably best remembered for the speech made by its CO, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins, on the eve of battle. But soldiers on the ground had a different response. According to the RSM, Doug Beattie, the men were unsettled by the speech and needed a good sergeant major's 'talking to' to restore their equilibrium.

Within days of the liberation of Basra, the Royal Irish were seeking to win the hearts and minds of the citizens. Re-opening the mosque, closed for 15 years, was one positive move. So, also, was the re-opening of schools. But civilians were often wary, as one girl had been murdered by Saddam supporters for waving at American soldiers.

Nonetheless, both units were able to report they had been welcomed by Iraqis, who were happy to see the end of the Ba'athist regime.

The Irish soldiers' innate ability to make friends was undoubtedly a significant element in the early days of working with the people of Iraq. Sadly, attitudes to the coalition were to change markedly, as the Irish Guards and Royal Irish would find during subsequent deployments to Iraq.

The Irish Guards lost another two soldiers, killed when they returned to Iraq in 2007. Lance Sergeants Chris Casey and Kirk Redpath were killed by an IED. Long gone were the days of patrolling in berets. Armoured vehicles, body armour and combat helmets had become the order of the day.

When they returned in 2005, the Royal Irish found a much-changed Iraq – and not for the better. The threat of attack was constant and very sophisticated IEDs, capable of knocking out a main battle tank, were being used against coalition forces.

In one attack, in Baghdad in November 2005, Lance Corporal (later Sergeant) Trevor Coult, a member of the UK Protection Force, was awarded the Military Cross (MC) when his reaction to an ambush saved the lives of the crews of two logistic vehicles.

Corporal Coult also placed his Land Rover alongside another vehicle that had stalled to protect it from enemy fire. Throughout the action, he showed total disregard for his own safety.

Captain Richard Deane, attached to the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, also earned the MC, as did Guardsman Liam Blanchflower of the Irish Guards.

The British force in Iraq had been reduced to about brigade-strength, but was responsible for an area the size of Wales, an impossible task.

With the need to protect bases against attack, including from long-range rockets, the ability to put soldiers on the ground was eroded gradually.

By early 2009, the majority of British forces had been withdrawn from Iraq. Only a small training team remained and that, too, was withdrawn in mid-2011. Attention was turning fully to Afghanistan.

Both the Irish Guards and Royal Irish were awarded the battle honour 'Iraq 2003', with the Micks also receiving the honour 'Al Basrah 2003'.

Many other service personnel from Northern Ireland served in Iraq, in all three services.

A total of 178 UK service personnel and one MoD civilian died in Iraq. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Iraqi campaign, those personnel from Northern Ireland did their duty with professionalism, bringing honour to their units, their uniform and their province.

Ten years on, they should be remembered for that.

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