“No, I don’t own my own helmet and body armour.” As I stand in
the rain outside the Iraqi embassy in London, I’m thinking of some of
the crazy questions I’ve been asked in the past couple of weeks.
On Monday, I’m off on a whistle-stop tour of Basra – the first
business journalist to go, as far as I know – to look at how the Army
trains and educates people in the field. To my surprise, there’s a
queue as I go to register my name. The Iraqi staff member asks my name.
I tell him and he writes down “Michael”. I repeat my surname and he
gives me a rather sad look and says: “Trust me; you’re the only Michael
on the list.”
Everyone else is Iraqi, including the man who is
telling the policeman stationed at the door how Saddam “killed his two
brothers”. On my way home I see an Asian man having his backpack
searched by five police on the Tube.
Time to go through the shopping list the Army has given me.
Apart from the body armour (which the Army has assured me will be
there when I arrive on Monday), the next most important item seems to
be flip-flops. Apparently more injuries happen in the field from
infections of the feet while people go the shower or toilet than
After the shopping list come the dos and the do
nots. The “do not” list includes “do not take home war trophies” and
“do not touch any weapons, ammunition or suspicious objects”.
There is only one request in the “do” section: “please do be prepared to be hot, sweaty and uncomfortable all day”.
There’s a piece in the paper saying that Basra airport has not been
attacked in seven months. I turn on the news later to find two civilian
security contractors have been killed in a roadside attack on a British
convoy 10 miles from where I’m going.
All that remains is to pack and say numerous goodbyes to people who
seem certain I’m off to my doom, before setting off for RAF’s airport
at Brize Norton first thing tomorrow morning.
If Iraqi insurgents think they’re tough, they should try getting out
of west London on a Monday morning in the driving rain. Having
eventually got to the airport, I meet Major Tom Ellis, our guide. Most
importantly he has my body armour.
It’s strange how normal everything looks. From the checkin desk to
the metal detectors, to the PA system wishing us a good flight, it’s
really no different from a commercial flight.
It’s like going on
some huge grown-up Scout trip as about 200 soldiers and officers who
are also off to Basra all take their seats in identical desert
About six hours later, we are coming in to
land and things get more surreal. Everyone is asked to put on their
armour and helmet for landing and all the lights go out. As all the
blinds are down over the windows, it’s impossible to see how high we
are or have any idea when we are going to land.
But we land
safely and I see something I have never seen, nor probably ever will
see again. Nobody stirs until the plane has come to a complete
standstill and the captain has turned off the seatbelt signs.
11pm and about 30°C. Razor wire guides us into the baggage hall. We’re
supposed to be met by special VIP armoured Land Rovers but security
levels have been jacked up and instead we’re on a bus – fondly known as
the “You’ll be sorry lorry”. To our front are two armed Land Rovers and
to our back a Warrior armoured personnel carrier and another Land Rover.
we drive into the desert, the bus is blacked out, except for the
headlights. We stop once while the soldiers ahead – who are lit up like
a Christmas tree by our headlights – scout for an unknown threat. Later
we have to change our route due to another security alert.
We reach our destination, Shaibah Logistics Base, after an hour of
driving in silence. My body armour is so warm I feel like I’m in a
Turkish bath and it’s a blessed relief to get it off.
After a brief introduction to the enormous base, we retire to our accommodation for a few hours’ sleep.
is at a suitably Army time of 7am. Today we’re out visiting education
providers on the base and in the nearby Camp Chindit. For the 15-minute
drive we are in another armoured convoy. Apparently this is standard
practice to show any lurking insurgents that the British Army means
business. We are briefed on our route and what happens if we are
attacked. The officer in charge uses all sort of colourful language
like “covering fire”, “casualties” and “the kill zone”.
squashed in the back of the armoured Land Rover is like being in a
pressure cooker. I meet one guy who spent 14 hours in one. I want to
get out after 20 minutes.
By lunchtime it’s about 45°C and
rising, but the awe of being in Iraq hasn’t worn off. I make sure I get
plenty of photos of me attempting to look tough in my boiling hot
Another day of talking to Army educators who have the unenviable
task of making sure education continues while the soldiers run around
the desert. It’s a very important task, bearing in mind up to 68 per
cent of newly recruited soldiers don’t have the reading and writing
skills of a nine-year-old.
As we get ready to leave, the security level goes up again and we
can’t take the bus back to Basra airport as it is deemed too much of a
soft target. Instead we take a Merlin helicopter after a four-hour wait
in the desert.
Though it might be very unfashionable to say so, it seems to me the Army is doing a great job in extraordinary circumstances.
good, in fact, that I didn’t even get to use my only phrase in Arabic:
La tapar, ana Sahaffi (don’t shoot me, I’m a journalist).