A window into Iraq

First published in Soldier Magazine in Jan 2008.

cct 1

Back at base camp: Capt Lorna Ward and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) at the COB outside Basra

OVER the past two months I have been living a very different existence from usual. There isn’t really a typical day on the flagship Live at Five show on Sky News where I am a producer, but it is a long way from the British Army’s base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where I am at the moment.

cct2

Patrol break: Capt Lorna Ward (centre of picture) and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with 1 Scots, US and Iraqi troop

As a Territorial Army officer, I was mobilised in October 2007 to deploy to Iraq as the commander of the Combat Camera Team. Essentially the team provides in-house broadcast and photographic output of the activities of the British military in Iraq. In a country where few foreign journalists have the ability to get out on the ground, we provide an essential window into south-eastern Iraq.

Providing footage and access to troops on the front line is vital so that people not just in the UK but all over the world can see what we are doing and how – and why – operations are carried out. But it is important to point out that this is not about propaganda. We aim to provide objective coverage, albeit from a UK military perspective, of what is really happening on the ground.

cct3

In the thick of it: Capt Lorna Ward (centre) and Cpl Andy Holmes (left) on patrol in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with a member of 1 Scots

Since arriving out here we have deployed on and covered all the operations, while dealing with the hazards associated with service in the Iraqi theatre – roadside bombs, rockets and bullets. So far we have managed to get video footage and/or stills into the national press on average once a week.  Our words, pictures and videos are also featured on a daily basis in specialist publications, as well as in UK local, regional and military media outlets.

It’s been a very busy few months and the team is now past the half-way point of the tour of duty.  There have been a few close shaves but morale is high and our tightly-knit team is having a ball doing the job it has been trained for and providing an important insight into the on-going, if changing, role of UK forces here.

With the run up to Christmas we had our hands full with charity runs, carol services and hundreds of messages from the troops, which we sent back to print and broadcast outlets. On top of the normal festive messages, we covered visits from Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as the handover of Basra Province to Iraqi control.

Christmas may be over but the pace of life here is still intense. The team and I have just got back from Baghdad.  We were based in the ‘red zone’ and went out on dismounted patrols with the joint US/UK Military Transition Team and the Iraqi Army in the volatile, divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid. Not only is this a first for a Combat Camera Team, it is a rare experience for any British troops, the vast majority of whom are based in Basra.

The challenge of working in the field, writing copy, editing pictures and distributing stories takes on a whole new meaning when you are in the middle of the desert, eating rations, living out of a backpack and dodging rockets. Add to that the nightmare of communications and accessing email, it’s easy to see why this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, as an ex-Regular soldier, it has to be one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever undertaken.

The Media Operations Group is a specialist Territorial Army unit that provides operational capability and training support to the Armed Forces – wherever they are deployed. Our role is providing the expert knowledge, experience and equipment, to create an effective link between the military, the media and the public. 

Iraqi Army completes first joint foot patrol in Baghdad

First published on the UK Ministry of Defence website on 11th Jan 2008

The Iraqi Army is leading its first joint foot patrols through areas of Baghdad under the mentoring eye of the US/UK Military Transition Team (MiTT).

In the divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid ‘Mahala’, Iraqi, American and British troops have been cooperating to improve the security and stability.

The 11-man US-led MiTT team also has four members of 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland posted to it from Basrah.

Major Kurt Roberts (US Army), Team Chief for the MiTT team in Baghdad, said:

“The MiTT teams were formed to work with the Iraqi Army, Police and some with the local police. My particular team is designed to work within an Iraqi Battalion. Our job is to help them grow and learn, help them with the training level they’re already at and help them get a little better.”

Captain Kev Gartside of the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland explained why the British troops are serving in Baghdad:

“The Iraqi Battalion here is from the 10th Division, which is from the South East. They’ve been loaned to Baghdad because there’s a requirement for more troops up here. And because of that, the US have requested British troops come up here to help with the mentoring. So we’ve got four Brits up here with the 11-man US MiTT team that mentors them. It’s a great relationship that we’ve developed with them. It’s a three-way thing between the US, the UK and the Iraqis. It’s all interacting very well and we’ve formed quite a bond between us all.”

Major Abed, (Iraqi Army) – 2nd in command of 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 10th Division said:

“We work very well with the coalition forces; we do our job together, we ask them advice for when we go to our missions. We have a daily meeting to exchange information and plan together.”

The MiTT team go out on regular patrols with the Iraqi troops around the West Rashid district.

Captain Gartside explains what happened on one:

“It was a joint dismounted patrol between the UK/US MiTT team and the Iraqi Army Battalion that is the ground-holding unit in this area. We were in an area that is a mixed Sunni and Shia area, and only as little as a couple of months ago, it was a real warzone and there was a lot of ethnic cleansing going on there. It’s developed now to the stage where we’re able to encourage dismounted patrols by the IA (Iraqi Army) which is something that would have been unheard of a couple of months ago. They’re now there to, as well as keep the peace, go beyond that and take over primacy from the US, and reassure the locals that we’re getting somewhere with the political situation, and the things that matter to them – water, food, electricity – will get through to these areas; which we saw today, with people cleaning the streets, rubbish being burnt and the water trucks cleaning out the sewage. That’s what’s important to the people.”

The district could house an IED or bomb-making cell or have an Al Qaeda presence. Patrols aim to gather intelligence on insurgent activity in the area, as well as gain the trust of the locals. The team and their Iraqi colleagues have had recent successes; including finding a large IED cache during a house search last week.

Major Kurt Roberts (US Army), Team Chief for the MiTT team in Baghdad is optimistic that they are on the road to stability and that they are starting to see improvement on the ground:

“We on the ground start to see a turning point. From the ground roots – I can’t talk for the higher levels of the government – but from the ground roots, it looks like the people are more appreciative of what’s going on and that helps the soldier feel better about his job that he does, when the people he’s doing it for appreciate what’s going on.”

Major Abed, (Iraqi Army) agrees:

“We have seen progress in the neighbourhoods; people aren’t afraid now, they come out into the streets. The local shops are open, they come to Iraqi military and police officers and they come for advice; they ask them for help if they have problems with people. This was not happening before.”

It’s hoped the progress in the West Rashid Mahala can be replicated around other districts of Baghdad.