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BASRA PATROLS - 2006

‘It’s a first’.  Our Lieutenant said no other camera crew had joined four different patrols within a 24-hour period. This was my third time back to Basra in southern Iraq since the invasion and the second time embedded with the British Military. So by now I was well aware of the risks and knew that travelling around Iraq was definitely the most dangerous part of working there. Our transfer from the airport into the centre of town was by helicopter.  BBC Newsnight's Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban and I loaded our ten heavy bags and cases, a tough job for just two and not made any easier by a very stressed loadmaster. There was very little space on board so I’m sure he would have preferred no luggage at all. Once airborne he calmed down and allowed me to film from a seat beside the open doorway. We banked steeply over Basra port and came into land at the old Shatt al-Arab Hotel. This was the base for the First Highlanders Regiment, our hosts for the next few days.

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That evening we joined the Border Guards on their first patrol of the night. Their Commanding Officer was Steve, or Colin as he became known, for his likeness to a certain Mr Darcy!  He took one look at my BBC issued flak jacket and grinned. “That’s no good, you’ll need this” he said, as he handed me the 20lb Enhanced Combat Body Amour needed for standing out of a Warrior tank roof hatch.  I felt like a sumo wrestler and it was so restrictive that I could barely get the camera onto my shoulder, never mind operate it. It’s only for a couple of hours, I thought to myself.  Little did I know it would end up being a lot longer!

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Julie Ritson after filming from the roof hatch of a Warrior tank - wearing Army issue ballistic vest

The patrol travelled in three Land Rovers. Mark and I were in the middle one. After an hour snaking through rural villages and around deserted factories, we were ordered to checkout an area near the river.  This is a popular launching spot for mortars aimed at the base, so the army regularly patrolled there. The area was pitch black so I quickly attached the night sight lens onto my camera before following Colin and two others into the fields. We found nothing apart from a ditch surrounded by footprints so the patrol headed back to base.

Five hours later we joined the same company, this time on a foot patrol. It was still dark as we walked out over the scrubland beside the base, trying to avoid scattered sections of barbed wire. Corporal Reid led us towards the L-shaped flats, a known hangoutfor troublemakers. As we got closer he ordered his troops to switch off their night vision equipment and as we crouched beside the road he whispered, “we have an audience”.  I suddenly felt extremely exposed but could do little about it.  We were out in the open with only the rising glare of a dawn sun behind us for cover. My anxiety eased once the patrol moved into a more built up area. 

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But we soon learnt from Corporal Reid that the packs of wild and noisy dogs often attack and the smiling locals on street corners regularly throw stone as the soldiers are walking away.

After breakfast and a bit more filming around the camp, we were briefed for the afternoon patrol into the town centre. The aim was to check on the progress of several building projectsand this would allow us to film the Brits interacting with the locals. A yearago the soldiers patrolled in just a couple of Land Rovers. Now, because of the increased threat level, they have to be sandwiched between two Warrior tanks. Mark and I travelled in the front Warrior, which was a deliberate choice. I knew it would be a tight squeeze trying to film up top beside two soldiers and camera angles would be limited. At least this way I’d see the rest of the convoy.  As we shifted down the street, dust and grit was kicked up in our wake.  This is always the worst part of filming from tanks. The camera can be cleaned but a chipped lens is more problematic.

 

As I filmed, a warning light flashed in my viewfinder. I wasn’t sure what was causing it at first but then realized it was the mobile phone jamming device used on board to stop the remote detonation of roadside bombs. Needless to say, this was one technical headache I was happy to live with.

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The tour went well with most of the locals appearing to welcome us.  But as the Warrior finally moved off we were hit by a couple of rocks and narrowly avoided a collision with a pickup truck. I suspect the truck would have come off far worse!

 

Four hours later, back at base, one of the soldiers took great delight in describing how close a brick had come to smashing into the blind side of my camera. Ignorance is bliss on this occasion!

Thankfully that was the last patrol of the day, or so I thought. I was now hearing mutterings of an evening patrol to Al Quibla. This is a particularly bad part of town where the Highlanders were going to try to persuade the local police to come out on foot patrol, despite them knowing that the Governor of Basra wasn't keen on his men co-operating with British forces.

So there I was again in the back of the Warrior tank - but this time under strict instructions not to stick my head out of the top, much too dangerous at night.  I was absolutely fine with that, but I did need some travelling shots. This was when the mini night shot camcorder came in handy, on the end of my extended arm up through the roof hatch.

 

At the police station the commander in charge was surprisingly quick to agree to a joint patrol. I suspect the presence of our camera was quite persuasive but after a few minutes filming they hinted that we weren’t really welcome inside and so we were soon told to stop.  The atmosphere outside was tense for a while until we got chatting to some of the lower ranking police officers. It seems they, like many in this region, were big fans of the BBC World Service and so suddenly our filming wasn’t such a problem.

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The patrol however was a token effort with only three officers agreeing to walk alongside the Brits. A quick march around the block and the patrol was over. But mission accomplished. The Highlanders left having achieved their goal and the local police probably went back to watching the telly, happy that the whole evening had gone off without incident. They weren’t the only ones. As we thundered back down the notoriously dangerous Basra ring road towards the base, I sat staring up through the hatch at the clear night sky and felt strangely relaxed….exhaustion probably! This wouldn’t be the last patrol of the trip but at least I knew it was the last one of that day.

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Mark Urban preparing his script on the flight out of Iraq
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