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23 Pioneer Regiment

Operation Telic.
Articles and photos, following the activities
of the 23 Pioneer
Regiment in Iraq.

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  Operation Telic - following the activities of the 23 Pioneer Regiment in Iraq

Soldiers from the 23 Pioneer Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps - based at Arncott and Graven Hill - were initially sent out to the Gulf to set up bases and camps. But within a week of the war beginning, they were given a new role, delivering humanitarian aid - though there were problems at first because the supply ship HMS Sir Galahad was delayed by mines. The Army has declined to say how many members of the regiment have gone to the war zone - but it is a significant number.

There are many stories and pictures on this page and I shall continue to add to them when I get more information. Latest stories are at the top and are in date order. Where possible I have put recognition to the original author of these really good articles and they are :-

- Burham Wazir and James Meek from The Guardian / Observer who's reports below are a good read.
- Bill Glauber and Laurie Goering, from Knight Ridder / Tribune Information Services.
- The BBC


  'Moving On'  by Burhan Wazir, The Guardian

Tuesday 8 April, 2003
Burhan Wazir says goodbye to his friends, the men and women of 23 Pioneer Regiment, who have left the outskirts of Basra to patrol the streets of Umm Qasr. My friends, the men and women of 23 Pioneer Regiment, have gone. On Saturday night, a whole two weeks after inaugurating the flow of humanitarian aid to Zubayr and the outskirts of Basra, the entire regiment was re-tasked. The men pulled down their tents, and left for the port of Umm Qasr. For the next few months, the regiment will patrol the streets of the port town.
The troops had been uneasy and pensive for a number of days. After having travelled up from Camp Centurion, and having personally delivered much-needed water and rations to Iraqi civilians, an air of disappointment enveloped the camp when the troops were told they would not make it to Basra. "We're always getting fucked over," said one man, bitterly.

The final hours, however, were joyous. As the sun set over the Shaibah Airfields, a small group of us wandered over to a newly opened army recuperation centre for dinner. And in the mess hall, complete with seating and tables, we sat and ate rice, salad and chicken stew. For dessert - a surprising pleasure - we ate chocolate cake and custard. It was sweet and runny, and immediately reminded me of school canteen dinners. Despite the appalling state of our personal hygiene - sweating sand into out meals - we were all unanimous in our verdict. The meal had filled us with enjoyment. And, for an instant, we imagined ourselves back home in a friendly hostelry.

Over the next few hours, however, the troops went back to work. The British army, I have come to think, is an engine of efficiency. They pulled up and packed away the poles that commanded the communications tent; eased down their accommodation; stowed away food and bedding; and quickly arranged everything into trailers and trucks. By the end of the exercise, Shaibah Airfields looked as we had found it - empty and soulless. As the troops sat in the vehicles, waiting for the order to travel to Umm Qasr under cover of night, I wandered from room to room. Aside from the last burning embers of the rubbish pile, there was little indication anyone else had lived here. All the tell-tale signs of an occupying force - cigarette ends, toilet paper, chewing gum wrappers - had vanished.

As the troops waited for the order to move, we took photographs, exchanged handshakes, hugs and addresses. It has, undoubtedly, been a remarkable few weeks, with a number of highs and lows. In all, I have come to admire my close friends in the 23 Pioneer Regiment. Having being saddled with a journalist, they adapted well and were more than accommodating. There were moments of sadness; laughter and irony. For the most part, though, we just got along. Conversations ranging around cinema, pop music, women and literature became our currency.

I have promised them I will visit them in Umm Qasr. It is a commitment I intend to keep. The troops, I have been informed, will be based in an abandoned hotel in the middle of town. From the building, they will conduct the operation to keep the peace on the streets of Umm Qasr. While disappointed not to have reached Iraq's second city, they will undoubtedly throw themselves into their new role. And, when we are all back in the UK, we have arranged to meet at a regimental dinner.

In the meantime, I have been attached to a new regiment - a well resourced outfit who will start to deliver large quantities of aid into Basra. It feels like starting all over again - making new friends and acquaintances. And I admit I can't but help feel a little maudlin this morning. I guess I miss my old friends and their jovial banter ("Get out of bed, ya lazy bastard?"; "Make us a brew"; "Geeza cigarette"). Soldiers, I have come to realise, live off transient relationships. It is an unmistakable truth of the profession that steady companionships and friendships often suffer. For all those reasons and more, I hope they are successful in performing their duties in Umm Qasr. And I look forward to our reunion at home.

· For Billy, Mickey and Paul (aka "Jock")

  'Iraqis face water crisis in battle zone'  by Ewen MacAskill & Burhan Wazir, The Guardian

Saturday 5 April, 2003
Army humanitarian effort falls short as aid groups express fears of cholera outbreak. International aid agencies yesterday criticised the British military for the slowness of the humanitarian aid effort in southern Iraq, especially the chaotic distribution of emergency water supplies. The agencies contrasted public relations pictures of British soldiers engaged in relief work in southern Iraq with horrendous conditions on the ground.

The army responded that it was not capable of doing anything more than a quick fix and that even that was difficult to achieve in what was still a battle zone. Patrick Nicholson, working in southern Iraq for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (Cafod), said yesterday that in Umm Qasr, which has been under control for a week and is deemed to be safe militarily, "there is a humanitarian need for water and it is not being met". He said that if the British could not supply a town of only 40,000 with water, it did not bode well for Basra, a city of more than a million, and other places in Iraq.

Unicef, which has had a long involvement in Iraq, also expressed concern about the water situation in Baghdad in the event of a prolonged siege. The electricity blackout since Thursday could disrupt the pumps that supply water. A Unicef spokeswoman said the city has back-up generators that, theoretically, could keep the pumps running for three weeks, if staff can reach their workplaces. The area suffering the severest water shortages remains Basra, where part of the electricity supply was knocked out by bombing at the start of the war. About 40% of the population have no - or limited - access to water. People in Basra have been taking drinking water direct from a river that is also used for sewage.

Save the Children expressed concern that the lack of electricity and fresh water in Basra could lead to outbreaks of dysentery, cholera and other diseases. An estimated 100,000 children are at risk. Unicef sent 10 water tankers across the border from Kuwait into southern Iraq yesterday but the amounts were tiny compared to the need. Damien Personnaz, a Unicef spokesman, said: "The water needs are really serious, and they're going to get worse" as temperatures are rising. Mr Nicholson said he had visited a hospital at Umm Qasr and although Cafod had been assured it would be supplied with water, it had been without a supply for three days. He added that people were crossing the frontline from Basra into Umm Qasr in a desperate search for water, only to turn back disappointed.

Mr Nicholson said the water was not reaching the neediest people and that, amid the chaos, profiteers have been exploiting the situation, selling 20 litres of water for 250-300 Iraqi dinars - a lot for the average Iraqi. The UK military said it is urgently investigating Cafod's claims. The British Humanitarian Task Force, led by the 23 Pioneer Regiment, has been at the heart of the aid effort. Even before the first aid - water and rations - hit the ground around southern Iraq, Colonel Peter Jones admitted British forces were able to offer little more than a "Band-Aid" until non-governmental agencies arrived.

"We are not here to remedy the situation," he said. "We cannot offer the Iraqis everything that they want. What we can do, however, is get the infrastructure of southern Iraq working again. We need to be able to quickly restore electricity and mains water supplies to the region to allow the people to be independent." For the past two weeks, the 23 Pioneer Regiment has been delivering water - initially in quantities of 24,000 litres - to the suburbs of Zubayr. In recent days, the number of water tankers has increased. On Thursday the Pioneers delivered 84,000 litres into the Zubayr's town centre. Tomorrow the Pioneers will deliver an estimated 35,000 rations to Umm Qasr. Yet army staff admit the aid is little short of a quick fix.

The water and food drops have come under attack on a number of occasions from militias from Zubayr and nearby Basra. "It is difficult to deliver aid in an area that is still an active battle zone," said Colonel Jones. "All kinds of security measures have to be put in place. We need to be accompanied by armoured vehicles, the area of the drop-off has to be scouted for safety measures beforehand."


  'Swearing to serve Queen and country'  by Burhan Wazir, The Guardian

Burhan Wazir meets one soldier who took the pledge of allegiance a little too literally. Early this morning, having agreed to accompany a humanitarian aid convoy into the sprawling tomato market of Zubayr, I climbed aboard a "four tonner" truck. Blinking in the morning light, I sat back and listened as the soldiers around me engaged in their usual conversations. One voice, however, was unmistakably louder than the rest. Sitting directly on my left, a Scottish soldier - I would hazard a guess that his accent originated from the industrial environs of Edinburgh- was in full flow.

Within five minutes, he had built up an enviable head of steam on his grievances. And they all came bubbling to surface in a glorious stream of venom and rage. I have detailed them here complete with their colourful sense of literacy: On the subject of officers: "The fucking cunt came over today. Guess what he had in his hands? A fucking pair of pyjamas. Can you believe it? What is that twat doing?, walking around a war zone, wearing pyjamas? And guess what - he put them down to dry on my tent. Next time he does that, I'm gonna burn 'em in front of the twat. Twat."

On the equally angering subject of Regiment catering facilities: "It's all fucking crap. How come we always gets the shite stuff. Look at the Yanks, they fuckin' get everything, fucking Burger Kings, fucking Big Macs and fucking soft drinks. And all the sweeties they can carry. We always gets the shite stuff. Our fucking cook house can't even fucking get a plate of chips together." The young man continued, flush with rage, this time on the subject of Turks: "They're dirty, dirty bastards. Stick fingered cunts the lot of 'em. I hated that place. Remember they stabbed those English fans? Well, I haven't got much sympathy for the English, but they should've invaded the placed there and then. Dirty bastards. Dirty bastards."

Sitting next to him, I laughed. There was little else to do. The irony was only too immediately apparent: here we were, snaking through the streets of Zubayr to deliver humanitarian aid, and the young Scot was oblivious to it all. "It's all fucking shite," he repeated. "Everything". We pulled into town and spent nearly three hours delivering water and emergency rations. The work was hard; the sun high; and the men quickly tired.

The drop, however, was an unparalleled success: the Iraqis were happy to see us and gratefully accepted everything they could carry. By the time we clambered back on board, tired but jovial with good spirits, I was convinced I would find the young Scot in better, if not more animated, spirits. He was, however, apoplectic. "Do you see those thieving bastards? They were trying to steal the lights off of the van. Thieving bastards. Did you see them? And I tell you another thing: they didn't look hungry to me. Some of those cunts were right fat bastards."

I should probably here explain what drove me to try and catalogue his innumerable outbursts. In the course of my time with the men belonging to 23 Pioneer Regiment, I have come across two basic types of soldiers. Those elder and, for the most part, uncomplaining statesmen who have now spent over a decade in the British armed forces. They willingly obey orders; execute them to the best of their abilities; and rarely complain. They are in stark contrast to their younger counterparts, the so-called "Playstation generation". This young lad was undoubtedly an example of the latter.

As we entered our base at a nearby airfield, the young Scot clambered down from his position and hit the ground. He was continuing to complain: around him, his fellow men shrugged their soldiers and feigned concern. "Fucking back here again," he grumbled. "I can't believe it. This place is a shite hole. Fucking traffic is worse than Sauchiehall Street on a fucking Saturday afternoon. And the food is shite as well. God, I could murder a fucking kebab."


  'A bitter chaos as trickle of aid begins'  by Burhan Wazir, The Observer

Sunday 30 March, 2003
British troops near Basra escort convoys of food and water to help a resentful population under the eyes of a vengeful enemy. Viewed from the northern edge of Zubayr, the bone-dry flatlands of the Mesopotamian plain are ablaze with Allah's wrath. Salah Mehdi, 35, watched the inferno burning in the nearby city of Basra. Close by, another sign of what Iraqis describe as 'Qiyamat', the Muslim Day of Reckoning, the skies are marked by thick, black smoke from scorching oil wells. Mehdi, a geography teacher at Zubayr elementary school, remembers when Basra was last in flames. In March 1991, Saddam Hussein, the Anointed One, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, ordered his forces to storm the sprawling ancient Shia citadel to quell an uprising. Mehdi saw hundreds of bodies. 'When we were running from the soldiers, we were falling over them.'

Twelve years later, Basra is burning once more. Inside, soldiers loyal to the Great Uncle of the Iraqi people are dispensing his punishment again. British forces nightly shell the metropolis. Mehdi has not seen his brothers for nearly two weeks. Mithal, 27, an engineer, and Ali, 28, an office administrator, are being used as human shields inside the besieged city. 'The Iraqi soldiers are not letting my brothers and their families come out,' he said. 'And the British are bombing the city. Maybe they are dead. Maybe.' 'My father is there,' said Nawaf Aja, 23. 'I have not seen him in a week. No one can get out. Iraqi soldiers use using people like him to slow down the attack. Many will die, I know.'

While Basra burns, the 23rd Pioneer Regiment is leading what is tantamount to an emergency humanitarian exercise in the middle of a war zone. Morning and afternoon, convoys laden with water and emergency rations leave Shabiah airbase. It is a curious way to deliver aid: the large processions is always accompanied by British tanks. The deployment of humanitarian supplies in the middle of a battle is viewed as a 'Band-Aid' until non-governmental agencies are able to enter Iraq in an estimated 30 to 45 days. 'We cannot expect to fix everything,' admitted Colonel Peter Jones, the regiment's commanding officer. Puffing on his trademark cigar, Jones said: 'What we can do is get the Iraqis some structure to their lives. We can make them self-sufficient for the time being. After that, the UN agencies take over.'

The aid drops have been subject to attack from Iraqi forces and militia still active in the area. Last Wednesday afternoon the first drop in the dusty town of Zubayr was disrupted by gunfire. The convoy, accompanied by three American Humvee Jeeps, was forced to retreat. Earlier, several hundred people fought over boxes of water. Iraqis, like the British soldiers, are quick to see the irony of the situation. Jalil Ali, 25, a scientist at the Ministry for Higher Education, threw a bottle of water on to the ground. 'Take it back,' he said. 'Why are they giving water and food when they are bombing us as well? They are giving us water and food because it is cheap. In the meantime, they want the oil.'

'First, America invades us,' said Khalil Mustafa, 29. 'Then they try to buy our loyalty with water. Last time, hundreds died when America left. I do not trust them.' By Friday morning, Jalil Ali was unbowed in his thinking. He refused to join the queues for food and medicine. 'The Americans and the British are the enemies of Allah. First, they bomb. Then, they try to help. This is deceit.'

Basra, at the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and once a playground for Kuwaitis who thronged to its discos and nightclubs in search of alcohol, marks the nexus for the British humanitarian effort. The city is a sprawling and sophisticated hub. Here, most of all, the British 'hearts and minds' aid effort is crucial. A self-sufficient Basra, goes the military reasoning, would ensure a self-sufficient south. Earlier last week UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned of an impending humanitarian disaster. 'We have learnt that the citizens of the city have been without food, water and electricity for a number of days now,' he said, in his characteristically solemn delivery. 'This is obviously grave news. Help must reach the people of Basra soon.'

Annan's warning has not gone unheeded by British forces who are concentrated in the south of the country while the American s head for Baghdad. On Friday, Colonel Jones and the 23rd Pioneer Regiment set off for the out skirts of Basra with 20,000 litres of water and a mobile medical unit. After looping around Zubayr, the convoy pulled up at an open field in the late afternoon. Two Challenger tanks trained their sights for signs of trouble. The mission was fraught with logistical problems. The field was a wide and open space, absent of shelter and vulnerable to attack. Quickly, fighting erupted among the crowd. As panicked soldiers threw boxes of bottled water into the crowd, one man was hit in the face. He walked away, blood streaming down his left cheek. Chaos ensued when an Iraqi fired at the static convoy.

Convoys laden with water and emergency rations leave Shabiah airbase bound for Iraqi civilian heartlands. The deployment of humanitarian supplies, in the middle of an active battle, is viewed as a "Band-aid" until non-governmental agencies are able to enter Iraq. "We cannot expect to fix everything," admitted Colonel Peter Jones, the regiment's commanding officer. British aid convoys have come under attack a number of times. Jones said: 'We just can't have people throwing boxes of water at the civilians. It leads to injuries. Similarly, we have to get the crowd to sit down. Control is everything. If they won't sit down, force them to. They have to be managed in an environment where we and they feel safe.'

The convoy regrouped under cover of nightfall and started for a small embankment on the outskirts of Basra. As soldiers ordered the Iraqi civilians to sit down in orderly lines, some streamed towards a medical ambulance. British doctors work with minimal supplies. Earlier in the day, a mother had brought forward her six-month-old baby. Miriama had severe burns across 70 per cent of her body after her father had tried to light a gas lamp. After injecting a painkiller, the doctor could only look on helplessly at her swollen eyes and disfigured hands. 'I can't do anything else,' she said, sadly. 'I just don't have the equipment for it.' Afterwards, Miriama's father said: 'I am happy for the help. But I am sad they cannot do much more for my child. What am I to do?'

Troops of 187 Squadron, 23 Pioneer Regiment, hand out food and
fresh water to the local population in a village just south of Basra.


The boxes are eagerly welcomed.


People carrying empty containers run as they hope to fill them with water supplied by soldiers from the 23 Pioneer Regiment, in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan Monday, March 31, 2003.


  'Oxfordshire and the War'  by The BBC
Thursday 27 March, 2003
Soldiers of Bicester-based 23 Pioneer Regiment went out to the Gulf in advance of the war to establish military bases. Within days of the conflict beginning, they found themselves switched to a new function, delivering humanitarian aid.

They have 7,500 days' worth of rations in plastic ration boxes. Colonel Debbie Noble said the role-change coincided with warnings that the aid operation needed in Iraq would be of epic proportions. Almost immediately, they faced frustration when mines prevented HMS Sir Galahad bringing the disaster supplies ashore. It took days to make it safe for the vessel to berth and begin unloading.

The Pioneer Regiment was due to transport more than 200 tonnes of supplies to a "safe" location in southern Iraq. Colonel Debbie Noble told BBC South Today about the regiment's new task."In their base they are holding nearly 160,000 litres of bulk water," she said. "They have 7,500 days' worth of rations in plastic ration boxes, and nine containers full of disaster relief kit. "That includes things like jerry cans, blankets, wire, shovels and so on to assist the local population in helping themselves get back on their feet.

"It does have its dangers." We try to make the distribution points be in areas that are benign. "The division assesses all the population areas, and where people more most needy we will obviously put distribution points into those, whether they are benign or not."


  'First Aid Convoy rolls into Iraq'  by Bill Glauber and Laurie Goering (KRT)
There were the dirty-faced kids fighting over bottles of water and juice boxes torn from plastic shopping bags. There was the slight woman with sad brown eyes wordlessly begging anyone to get her some food. And there were the young men stacking food-filled boxes on wheelbarrows and hauling them away a half-mile to their dusty town in this hard land. This was the scene Wednesday when three Kuwait semi-trucks full of boxes of food and water, among the first large-scale shipments of humanitarian aid to arrive in southern Iraq, pulled over the Iraq border Wednesday and were immediately mobbed by several hundred residents on the southern outskirts of Safwan.

The chaotic conditions that confronted aid workers could serve as a warning of what might lie ahead in the immense project to deliver humanitarian supplies to Iraq's hard-pressed population, impoverished by decades of war and years of international sanctions. Around 60 percent of Iraqis are reliant on food handouts, often the only source of income for families. Humanitarian aid, slowed by the battle to seize the port town of Umm Qasr, began flowing in earnest into southern Iraq on Wednesday, a week after the start of the war.

Along with the Kuwaiti delivery, a convoy of British aid - food, water and medical supplies - passed the border Wednesday afternoon, headed for a new aid distribution point expected to be established south of Basra. The British convoy included 100,000 humanitarian meals, packed in 20 metal shipping crates, and followed 80,000 liters of water shipped into Iraq on Tuesday. Coalition soldiers also were working on building a water line from a United Nations post on the Kuwait side of the demilitarized zone to Umm Qasr in an effort to deliver water there.

Humanitarian aid was supposed to arrive almost immediately after the start of the war, via the deep-water port at Umm Qasr. But the coalition's failure to pacify the port until early this week has delayed shipments. The first is due to arrive Thursday when the Royal Fleet Auxiliary's Sir Galahad is expected to pull in carrying 900 tons of food, water, medical supplies and other aid. Minesweeping vessels and divers have worked over the last few days to clear sea-lane mines left at the port.

But just getting the aid into Iraq is only part of the problem. Delivering it to the people also could prove difficult, especially in wartime, when fear runs wild and political passions are at their highest. Even though Iraqis reportedly have enough food stocks to survive about a month of war, food and aid are commodities that can be bartered. So tossing out boxes of food from the back of a semi was like tossing out dollar bills. This is also why the aid drop in Safwan was sobering and a little alarming.

In a muddy no-man's land littered with ruined light poles and stray boulders, the distressed people of a hardscrabble town of 10,000 overwhelmed a disorganized, skeletal aid staff from Kuwait's Red Crescent Society. Workers tossed boxes full of aid - plastic bags of water, juice, bread and other supplies-to the shoving crowd until men piled into the semis and either threw the goods out to the crowd or took them away, rushing through muddy puddles. On the roadway, military convoys rumbled by, and British troops manned the perimeters, guns at the ready.

Young men with red-and-white checkered scarves wrapped around their faces to conceal their identities, chanted for gathered television cameras: "With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice for you, Saddam." But away from the cameras, some of those sitting on boxes of assistance confessed that "they will shoot us, they will bomb us, if we say anything against Saddam." The strong got the aid, the weak or the less resourceful came away empty-handed."This is not well organized. We're getting very little, and I have 10 people in my family," said Sabah Masol, one man who had managed to secure only a single plastic shopping bag of food. Others were angered, even ashamed by the handouts, in part it seemed because the aid came from their enemies to the south, the Kuwaitis.

Nasser Al Shami, a 27-year-old student with a wispy beard, gray robe and dirty black shoes, looked on in resignation as the mob fought over the boxes. "There is food (in Iraq) but no freedom," Al Shami said, noting that before the war families regularly received a dozen bags of flour, and five bags each of rice and sugar. Coalition officials view the aid delivery as a vital part of the overall war strategy, which involves not only removing Saddam Hussein's regime but trying to win over the broader Iraqi society.

"This is huge. It's as important to get this right as it is to get military action right, and that's been recognized from the start," said Chris Wilton, the British ambassador to Kuwait, who visited the border to see some of the first aid delivered. "We're replacing a regime, not destroying a people. If we do this right we can persuade them we're the good guys." Coalition forces have stepped up protection for supply lines, including convoys of humanitarian aid, in recent days in southern Iraq. As troops raced forward to Baghdad in the first days of the war, the rear lines were left with little protection. Now armed guards patrol the entrance to Safwan, one of the first towns over the border, and most convoys are accompanied by heavy machine guns.

"When you go forward at that speed your supply lines are vulnerable," said Capt. Andrew Smith of the British 23 Pioneer regiment, which is leading the humanitarian aid push. "But we'll overcome that. From now on you'll see more a tactical change, with more military escorting." He admitted, however, that such protection could slow the pace of troops toward Baghdad. "When you take people off one task to another, you have to change your plan. This may slow down the advance," he said.

Even with the additional protection, drivers in aid convoys worry that the job leaves them particularly vulnerable. Suicide bombers, for instance, could find their way into crowds like the one that mobbed aid trucks in Safwan on Wednesday, British military officials said. "I'm very, very much worried about being overrun," said Lt. Mike Weir of the Pioneer unit. "When we go out we're very much on a limb. "When someone attacks, we can fire on their position. But when someone walks up, you don't know their intent," he said.

© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


  'Reliving Old Battles'  by Burhan Wazir, The Observer
Thursday 27 March, 2003
On a grim night spent at an abandoned airfield in southern Iraq, Burhan Wazir finds it hard not to imagine the ferocious fighting that took place there during the last Gulf war. The men of 23 Pioneer Regiment are in unanimous agreement: last night was undoubtedly one of the most gruelling evenings of the campaign to date.
After driving into Iraq from Northern Kuwait, a journey that took us an arduous 24 hours to complete, we made camp at Shaibah airfields. The natural elements were against us for most of the time. Cold rains and unforgiving winds battered the men.

And this morning, we woke up damp and miserable. In the second week of war, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Allah - temporarily at least - is on the side of Saddam. Shaibah Airfields, or rather, what is left of them, are a series of hangars, runways and outbuildings on the Basra Road. There, however, all similarities with conventional airports or military airbases end. The runways are littered with the bric-a-brac of war: engines, burned-out vehicles, armaments and masonry.

I would hazard a guess that some of the wreckage was abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops during the last Gulf war. Most of the debris, I believe, was deliberately placed by Iraqi troops over the last few months. The presence of the rubble of war slows down allied troops, who are trying to use the base as a campaign base. Negotiating a course through the runways, for most civilians, would be akin to attempting a u-turn around a penny coin. Yet it is the hangars themselves that are the most remarkable facet of Shaibah airfields. We took shelter in one last night. It was a great hulking building that seemed both dead and alive at the same time.

As the winds whipped up throughout the night, forcing rain and mud through the great bulk doors - it would drench sleeping bags and soil shoes - the hangar's tin roof provided an accompaniment to the sounds of battle. Every part of the building seemed to groan in its own inimitable way. The hangar is, of course, supported by a series of offices and outbuildings. Here, all the decade-old injuries of war are apparent. To the casual observer, buildings, or at least those occupied by men and women, are the very fabric of life.

Offices and homes contain memories - cheerful or otherwise. The empty yawning buildings of Shaibah airfields, however, seem to speak only of years of blood-letting and death. A night inside them is a profoundly depressing affair. The roofing has caved in, the walls have collapsed and rubble is strewn across all the floors. Save the three stray dogs who entered this morning to sniff around their new and temporary lodgers, the offices are abandoned. Outside, smaller buildings - they were once administrative and supply bases - are all in a similarly bleak condition.

Yet standing in them, and looking up at the walls pock-marked with hundreds of bullet holes, it is hard not to imagine the concentrated ferocity of the attacks that forced those Iraqi soldiers to flee their posts. Many of the men, otherwise law-abiding citizens with wives and families, would have run outside to seek shelter underneath the trees that surround the hangar. Most of them would have died in the process. Others might have preferred to crouch down in the many small outhouses that surround the airstrips: many of them also, presumably, died in the raids.

To some considerable extent, however, the men of 23 Pioneers are attempting to turn the hangar into a more comfortable abode. Hot drinking water was available last night. And, as they waited for the next stage of their operation to be verified, the building was at least full of the sounds of men talking among themselves. I suppose on last night's evidence, it can be argued that any building, no matter how derelict, can always be reclaimed. For my own part, though, I always find something uniquely disheartening in the abandonment of buildings - I always find empty structures inexorably linked to economic and social misery. Here, the Iraqis were forced to give them up. More likely, they had no other choice.


  'Hard Routine Kicks In'  by Burhan Wazir, The Observer

Thursday 20 March, 2003
Life is getting tougher for the soldiers, who fear chemical attacks as the war begins in earnest, writes Burhan Wazir. Passing away hour upon hour in a trench, after the initial yell of "Incoming" echoes out from the Regimental Head Quarters, you learn to rationalise time. Today, on four occasions, the men from the logistics brigade have rushed, while pulling on their gas masks, towards a trench 30 metres from regimental headquarters. Leaping into the 5ft deep trench is a comforting feeling that suffuses an air of immediate safety. Then the doubts kick in.

Last night, as the 23 Pioneer Regiment bedded down in its most northerly position in this campaign to date, operations were ratcheted up. By this morning, the air strikes had begun in earnest. And Saddam Hussein, the autocrat who has held power through the rule of three prime ministers and an equal number of presidents, replied in time mannered fashion.

He lobbed a few Scuds into the Kuwaiti desert. This morning, I heard a distant thud as one landed in the desert around 15 km away. We had left behind our camp at Centurion earlier yesterday. Leaving a small group of men to ensure the camp was in working order, the tents containing the regimental headquarters came down. As the air war against the Iraqi regime gets underway, the ground troops are jostling into position near the border between Kuwait and Iraq.

Driving through a hard wind, we saw American convoys, most of them led by the now distinctive Humvee jeeps, heading further north. We reached our new location mid-afternoon. And, as I stood and watched, the tents and communications were quickly re-established. The men toiled for most of the afternoon and evening, digging trenches, strengthening their positions and eventually sleeping in their vehicles or in two-man tents hidden under camouflaged webbing.

For the foreseeable future, life is getting tough for the men of the regiment. They are adopting what theircommanding officer has described as a "hard routine". Loosely translated, this entails behaving like John Rambo behind enemy lines. The men are probably expected to sew their own wounds shut and roast camels over naked flames. If before, we were enjoying the luxuries of "soft routine", this tougher regime reminds me of life on the fictional island in Lord of the Flies.

The threat of a chemical weapons attack is a primary concern on the minds of the men in the regiment. At the time of writing, we have undergone four alerts already. The "gas! gas! gas!", or incoming" alerts, supplemented by horns from all nearby vehicles, see the men rush to open their respirator bags. The soldiers then run into their tents and pull on their chemical suits. The danger is palpable. In the tents and trenches, the hooded and masked men seem not to breath in fresh air from their canisters, but the stomach-cramping fear that this balmy morning might, just might, be their last.

This is the essence of the war for the common soldier: a willingness to realise and overcome all dangers. The men of the logistics brigade have taken to it with relative ease. Soldiers quantify their emotions. Now, one step closer to the end game, there is a sense that they are about to deliver their mission. A few minutes ago, as we stood in a trench, two of the soldiers laughed and joked about reliving an experience from the last Gulf war. "Christ, I never thought I'd end up here again," laughed one soldier. "Compared with this, Ireland was easy. Sitting in bushes and staring into houses. I can do that."

Fear and uncertainty always encourages a black humour, though. This morning, pulling on my chemical weapons suit over my outer clothes for the second time, I started cursing to myself. In the heat, struggling to tie my velcro strips, I was tempted to give up the ghost. As I struggled with my suit, I watched the trained men around me yell "gas! gas! gas!", while checking each other. All of us, I can safely say, were scared.

Time in the trench is further elongated by the severe heat and, eventually, boredom. The gas mask starts to dig into the scalp after a while. And the suit itches against the skin. Add the sand, the endless quantities of sand, and the feeling is extremely unpleasant. Trench warfare, it seems, has rarely progressed in the past 100 years. While the masks and the suits have seen a quantum leap in technology, the upshot in the event of a missile attack remains the same: dive in and sit. Which is when the doubts kick in.


  'Thoughts and Crosses'  by Burhan Wazir, The Observer

Wednesday 19 March, 2003
While many aspects of army life have changed almost out of all recognition over the past century, the regimental priest continues to play an important role in times of war, writes Burhan Wazir from northern Kuwait.

Each morning, around 7.15am, the 15 or so unit officers of the Logistic Brigade make their way to the desert-camouflaged tent that hosts the regimental headquarters. Around a makeshift wooden table, the freshly showered men, straight out of the breakfast tent, ease themselves onto benches and wait for their commanding officer, Peter Jones. Jones, a man the size of a small bungalow, normally appears at the head of the table, one hand clutching a flask containing steaming hot tea. As the men individually tick off their agenda for the day, or update the CO on the previous 24 hours' progress, Jones will often mutter and issue orders.

With deep-set olive-black eyes and a weather-hardened face, Jones, for the most part, is an amiable companion. Every now and then, though, upon hearing frustrating news, the eyes harden and his mouth narrows into a thin line. At that point, you can almost see the men sink into the sand as they desperately try to avert his piercing gaze.I normally sit at the opposite end of the table to Jones, next to a man called Paul Swinn, the regimental priest. Swinn, in his early 40s, has been out in the desert of northern Kuwait for the past six weeks but to look at his skin, the hue of which is like freshly-rolled pastry, you would think he had just arrived.

In contrast with the rough-and-tumble and understandably macho gestures of the rest of the regiment, Swinn is a quiet presence. He normally passes the meeting shuffling through religious texts, or adding to his notebook in a neat, near-microscopic script. Army priests have come a long way in the last 100 years. In The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer's seminal denunciation of war, priests attached to units have a tendency to come across like the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, with pronunciations of hellfire, evil and purgatory. Similarly, during the Vietnam war, US army clerics were derided for espousing the same political soundbites to troops as the propaganda emanating from politicians back home.

These days, however, in accordance with changing times and diverse intakes, the padres working within the British army are less inclined to resemble automatons cut from the cloth of the Church of England. In fact, the make-up of Logistic Brigade - the regiment boasts a healthy number of Fijians and British-Asians - dictates a more subtle approach. Said Swinn earlier this week: "I can't afford to be too preachy when I speak to the men and women. I can't be seen to be speaking down to them. A lot of my work is simply involved with having conversations. I try to relate to their experiences. And they, in turn, are encouraged to tell me how they are feeling."

It is during the morning meetings, however, that Swinn comes to life. When his turn comes, he holds up some notes and, with shaking hands, begins what he announces as his "thought for the day". Earlier this week, he read from Psalm 68. His reading was well-measured and tempered with the universal fears of the days ahead. Two days ago, he said more simply: "Just because we have forgotten Jesus, it does not mean that he has forgotten us."
In general, I have noted a respectful hush descend upon the table whenever Swinn begins to speak. Perhaps in an age where politicians prefer to speak of "collateral damage" and "friendly fire", the sight of an obviously nervous man, shakily delivering a simple sermon, strikes a simple and much needed profundity about the days ahead.

The role of a priest might strike some as an anachronism in these modern times but I must confess to having been seduced by the simplicity of the notion. In my time here, I have come to look forward to Swinn's talks. Similarly, the regimental officers seem to appreciate his words. While army life has undoubtedly benefited from technological quantum leaps in terms of technology, an old-fashioned ethic is stubbornly refusing to die. The occasional drinking of port, Graham Greene novels and the "padre" are undoubtedly the last-standing vestiges of a by-gone era.

"I only started my 'thought for the day' because I never had anything else to say," Swinn told me a few days ago. I was standing in the middle of the camp, leaning against a bin in an area cordoned off for smokers. "Every morning, we went round the table, and I never had anything to say," He continued. "So I just came up with an idea: a thought for the day. To be honest, I've been surprised by the reaction. Hopefully, the men look forward to what I have to say."


Digging defensive trenches to protect their camp.


  'Bacon, sausage and sandflies in the army's desert oasis'  by James Meek, The Guardian

Monday 24 February, 2003
Caterers struggle to cope with the huge build-up in Kuwait. In the desert north of Kuwait city, behind a sand rampart, Major Larry Downes and his colleagues have erected a vast marquee dedicated to a feeding task of biblical proportions. Under canvas, under the mighty, silver extractor fans powered by generator, scores of army chefs chop, peel, grate and boil around the clock. "You look at this facility and you might think it's fairly austere," said the major fondly. "But actually this is pretty Gucci in field catering."

The Ministry of Defence doesn't want to say how many of the 26,000 British troops who will eventually be assigned for a possible invasion of Iraq have already massed in the desert. But the fact that in the past fortnight they have eaten 280 tonnes of potatoes is a clue. Many of them are already here. "We're getting between a thousand and a couple of thousand arriving every day," one senior NCO said.

Over the weekend, the MoD lifted the lid a little on the assembling British forces. Although there is still a wariness about giving the media access to front-line troops, an escorted visit to the supply centre - which includes Major Downes' field kitchen, capable of feeding 5,000 - revealed how rapidly British force numbers have built up, as the diplomatic manoeuvring in Europe and the US continues. Three weeks ago, driving up and down Highway 80 - the six-lane motorway that cuts straight through the desert from Kuwait City to Basra, the "highway of death" in the 1991 war - the Guardian saw only one British military vehicle, a Land Rover, among the US military convoys.

On Saturday, the proportions were reversed. Hundreds of British trucks, tank transporters and Land Rovers were grumbling north and south. Most still had their green European camouflage on, with "How's My Driving?" written in German on the mudflaps. A company of British combat soldiers, some wearing the shoulder flash of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, sped north in convoy, exhausted from their journey to the emirate. In helmets and goggles, most with checked Arab scarves round their necks, they slept against each other in the back of trucks like toppled skittles.

Their Land Rovers, crowned with black machine guns, had been painted so as to be invisible in the desert, and would have been if only the desert was the colour of custard, and not a blinding near-white in the afternoon sun. Three weeks ago, the desert east of Highway 80 was thick with the tents of picnicking Kuwaiti families and Bedouin herdspeople. The spring grazing of thin grass and herbs was being cropped by thousands of camels. Now they have all been moved south, and a new tribe has arrived - the British, and the number of their tents is beyond counting. Supplying this mass of troops in a place where everything has to be brought in from outside has been a struggle. Each member of the force is supposed to get six litres of water a day to drink and 25 litres for washing. When the ad hoc division is at full strength that means 800,000 litres a day coming out across the sands.

Regimental Sergeant Major Adie Mycroft, of 23 Pioneer Regiment, the army's camp builders, said: " springs to mind. We should have been here a little bit earlier." The whole regiment was not in place until just over two weeks ago. "Now, we have solar showers. We were here for a long period of time with minimum equipment. The first people who arrived here literally survived with what they had on their backs."

The central field kitchen cooks two hot meals a day for troops at 24 satellite kitchens. It boxes them up for collection; the units send trucks to pick up breakfast and dinner. On Saturday night, dinner was pasta carbonara. Behind the marquee a newly arrived field bakery was gearing up to make 20,000 bread rolls. The evening's meals were stacked up and labelled unit by unit in the marquee's loading area: more than 2,000 for the air assault brigade, almost as many for Royal Marine units. Forty of the commandos had requested, and been given, vegetarian meals. Major Downes had many more stats to impress about the appetites of the army in the past fortnight: eight tonnes of beef, 17 tonnes of chicken, 44 tonnes of fruit, 7,000 cans of baked beans, 50,000 litres of fresh milk and 630,000 teabags.

It all comes at a price. Major Gillian Jenkins, a 33-year-old from Edinburgh who has the job of ordering the food and drink from suppliers, said they were feeding the soldiers for about £6 each a day - more than £1m a week for the whole division. "A lot of it comes in by Antonov, a very large Russian aircraft," she said. "To get food in quantity by ship, if you order it today, you would expect to see it in about four weeks. My first shipment arrives today. "It's a bit like planning a dinner party for 20, and 30 turn up. The decisions made by No 10 have been made very quickly so there have been occasions when things like baked beans or sausages have been in short supply. Then you take it round the area so that everybody gets a full British one day and a half-British the next."

In their sprawling camps, signposted according to London districts - Holloway Road, Hammersmith - the British are in the same strange limbo as the Americans, brought from the UK or Germany direct to the desert, where for weeks on end they will see no civilians or any reminder of civilian life, no buildings and virtually no vegetation. The British armour has yet to arrive, but the next time the troops see civilians and their world, they expect them to be Iraqis, and that anticipation hangs over their tents.

Asked what he thought about the situation, RSM Mycroft, 37, from Doncaster, said he tried not to think about it. "If I was down, or seemed to be down, it would probably have an effect on the rest of the lads. If they see me bobbing around and cracking jokes, it keeps morale up. "The only thing I miss more than anything is it keeps me apart from the family. One of the lads hit the nail on the head the other day when he turned round and said: 'Do you know, if I could go home at weekends, this would be brilliant'."

Operation Veritas

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