'We still haven't found any WMD. It was wrong, totally wrong. The way I feel is that we are fighting an American war'

Terri Judd in Basra finds troops taking pride in doing the right thing - ousting Saddam, rebuilding Iraq - even for the wrong reasons

11 July 2004


"If Bush went to visit the Yanks, they would go crazy. If Blair turned up here, he would get a cup of tea, and that would be it. Frankly, we would be more upset that we would have to run around clearing up camp," the sergeant major explained bluntly. When you have had mortars and rocket-propelled grenades launched at you, it would seem, political niceties no longer appear too important.

The Prime Minister's admission that weapons of mass destruction may never be found in Iraq fails to generate much excitement or surprise among the 8,800 British troops stationed in the country. They are too busy treading a fine line between helping to rebuild Basra and maintaining a high alert against a near constant threat from renegade factions.

"Weapons of mass destruction? Nobody could say for certain whether [Saddam Hussein] still had them or not. Whether the intelligence was used as an excuse to do what we did, I don't suppose we will ever know. But I do think we were right to come here," said Cpl Steve Edwards.

Many of his fellow soldiers in the Cheshire Regiment disagree. "We still haven't found any WMD. It was wrong, totally wrong. The way I feel is that we are fighting an American war. It is all for Bush's cabinet and campaign," said Cpl Simon Stone.

"I think we should have assassinated [Saddam]," agreed L/Cpl Kevin Howard. "We didn't need to start a war. I could be home, not fighting someone else's war."

The men of the Cheshire's Support Company, who came under heavy and repeated attack while escorting water tankers on 8 May, only to have to have to go back on to the streets hours later as the friendly face of the British Army, have been among those to suffer the sharp end of political decisions.

Nevertheless, like many of their colleagues and fellow regiments in Basra, there is an obvious sense of pride in the work they have done to begin the long and often deeply frustrating process of rebuilding the city. In the words of Major Alex Cooper: "We did the right thing for the wrong reasons."

Capt Dougal Watts added: "The decision to come in, while treated with various degrees of disdain, was right, because the situation in Iraq would have been a lot worse if we hadn't come in."

Basra remains a city in tatters, the rubble of the destroyed Baath Party buildings and the oppressive squalor of its poorer districts a reminder that the task of reconstruction is still mountainous. The increasingly well-targeted threat from dissident factions makes many contractors stay away.

But progress is being made. Among scenes of biblical impoverishment, in districts where donkey carts still provide the main transport, are new cars and billboards advertising Samsung mobile phones. The chief complaint is of electricity shortages.

The men and women of the British forces have toiled to help rebuild police stations, three of which were shattered by suicide bombers in April, and ambulance stations. They have worked to train a new police force and National Guard, and have set up football tournaments for the youngsters. Despite the handover to an interim Iraqi government late last month, local people still take their woes directly to the soldier on patrol.

"I think [the soldiers] are happy with a job well done. In Northern Ireland we patrol for the sake of patrolling, whereas here you can actually change things," said Sergeant Major Nigel Peers.

Major Richard Gregory said: "I had problems with [the war] at the beginning because basically there are a lot of despotic regimes out there that could do with sorting out. Why particularly this one? You couldn't help feeling it was for economic reasons ­ which are important, but morally difficult to justify politically ­ and international security. But once we were committed, that was it.

"I am in the Army and I signed on the dotted line. Most people take the attitude: we are here, so let's get on with it."

Now the crucial decision will be at what point the troops should go home. "We wiped out their power structure and we can't just leave them to it ... We need to be here to make sure the next Saddam is not waiting in the wings," said Cpl Steve Edwards.

While many feel it is time to pack their bags, others do not want to go until they are confident that the predominantly friendly people of Basra no longer need their help. "I think we could very quickly outstay our welcome," said RSM Kevin Fletcher, "but I do think we did the right thing, removing Saddam from power.

"I have wandered around the streets and seen people who are limbless as punishment for minor offences."