|American Michael Lyon was impressed as he witnessed the British Army at war in Iraq.......
British Forces at War: As Witnessed by an American
The explosions from enemy rockets and mortar fire have been constant companions for the small contingent of Coalition forces based at the former Basra Palace, on the banks of Shatt al Arab River. In the past five months, more than a thousand bombs have been fired at this small base, all while these British combat troops, Romanian soldiers and a small contingent of Americans continue their attempts to stabilize Iraq. The nearby US Regional Embassy office also is frequently targeted.
A dramatic surge in IDF attacks (indirect fire: rockets and mortars) began here in September 2006, subsequent an increase in British troops. Locals cite Iranian influence behind the attacks, while British officers say this is the most IDF’d base in Iraq. The dozens of bombs that exploded on the base in the first five days of my embed with a British infantry platoon punctuated those claims.
The building where many British forces live is frequently hit. Recently a rocket slammed into the living quarters, creating a massive gape and much wreckage, while severely wounding one soldier from 5 Platoon. Just this week, a mortar bomb severely damaged a British armored vehicle parked outside, and another bomb explosively pruned a treetop, fragging the building where soldiers live, and leaving ears ringing. A 5 Platoon soldier videotaped the impact as it happened. Amazingly, despite the frequency of the IDF attacks, a combination of force protection measures and sheer luck have prevented the death of any British soldier, though combat forces have been seriously wounded from them. The risk of spending an hour outside the building might be equivalent to smoking a thousand cartons of unfiltered cigarettes. And Crossfit exercise might not help: the old gym was blasted a few days ago.
Earlier this week, when Moqtada al Sadr issued a call to violence against Coalition forces, multiple IDF strikes were launched against this base. Militias based in the al Quibla district of Basra, a notorious haven for Shia “JAM” militias who are loyal to or influenced by al Sadr, were believed responsible. Many of their shots miss the base, landing in civilian populations. According to the British commanders, JAM members will attack local journalists who report these mistakes.
Before al Sadr issued his provocation, the British Army was planning aggressive offensive actions against terrorists and militia members, and allowed this writer to join 5 Platoon, 2nd Battalion, “The Rifles” Battle Group for six days of missions. Those missions included Operation Arezzo, named for the Tuscan city that was the site of famous battles in the 14th century, and of an important victory for British troops in July 1941 as they drove the Axis forces north and out of Italy for good.
Surrounded by JAM: British Forces just before the shootout
Lieutenant Colonel Justin Maciejewski MBE, the Battle Group Operations Commander (equivalent to an American Battalion Commander), allowed this writer unprecedented access to the planning details of Operation Arezzo, part of three simultaneous strike and arrest operations in the al Quibla district of Basra, designed in part to bait the enemy into attacking British forces.
In all, 13 platoons would partake, and I’d accompany 5 Platoon. LTC Maciejewski further permitted me to record both video and still camera images during the operation, and to get as close to the combat as I dare. 5 Platoon has seen a lot of fighting in recent months, and had already taken me on several minor missions. For Operation Arezzo, they adopted me as one of their own.
The plan for Operation Arezzo was cleverly contrived. While Americans count on helicopter support for deliberate high-intensity combat here, the Brits were going into extremely hostile terrain, outnumbered, without helicopter support, relying instead upon timing, terrain, maneuverability, firepower, and sheer audacity.
In combat, luck can be a decisive factor, but Murphy’s Law remains in effect. For Operation Arezzo, the risks of something going catastrophically wrong were apparent at the outset. The soldiers in 5 Platoon had never conducted such an audacious operation—in broad daylight—but LTC Maciejewski intended to show the enemy that even in their strongest bastion, outnumbered British forces could strike into their heart and inflict heavy losses.
Shortly before the mission, as soldiers from 5 Platoon disassembled their weapons for cleaning (again), performed functions checks, the tone of the music coming out of their speakers changed. As with American combat forces, before embarking on a deliberate fight, the music became more rousing and to the bone. For Operation Arezzo, the pre-battle tune was Gimme Shelter, by the Rolling Stones:
War, Children, it’s just a s