'Desert Rats' Retreat under Fierce Onslaught
The Desert Rats were forced to retreat to avoid an ambush by Republican Guards, who were reported to be heading out of Basra in civilian clothes in an attempt to kill or capture British troops. British officers admitted they had vastly underestimated the extent of resistance and expressed disappointment that so far they had not been enthusiastically welcomed as liberators. "It's not the Iraqi army we have to worry about, it's the person with the Kalashnikov in the back garden. The Iraqis are smiling assassins. They wave at you as you go past, then shoot you in the back."
Desert Rats retreat under fierce onslaught
Marines and paratroopers could be called in as British officers admit underestimating resistance
Martin Bentham near Basra and Ewen MacAskill
Tuesday March 25, 2003
British commanders are considering calling in paratroopers and the Royal Marine commandos to assist in the battle for Basra after meeting fiercer than expected resistance.
British officers admitted they had vastly underestimated the extent of resistance and expressed disappointment that so far they had not been enthusiastically welcomed as liberators.
The option of calling in the marines and the paratroopers came after some units of the Desert Rats were forced to withdraw about 10 miles from Basra yesterday.
The US and Britain had hoped that once the city had been surrounded, the defenders would give up. However, fighting has continued - not against regular forces but in sporadic episodes against Iraqi fighters, including some said to be in civilian clothes.
British artillery shells were fired into the city yesterday, while exchanges between British tanks and armoured cars and small groups of Iraqis continued throughout the day.
The Desert Rats were forced to retreat to avoid an ambush by Republican Guards, who were reported to be heading out of Basra in civilian clothes in an attempt to kill or capture British troops.
During the fighting, British tanks shuffled back and forwards, refuelling and then heading back to join the fray. Troops approaching along the main road ran a gauntlet of fire. The soldiers nicknamed a stretch of the road notorious for rocket-propelled grenade ambushes "RPG alley".
One British unit reported coming under fire near a bridge on the outskirts of Basra airport. Troops said two men dressed as civilians opened up with rocket-propelled grenades.
Major Charlie Lambert, second-in-command of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards battle group, said the difficulties British troops were facing were caused by Iraqi renegades out of uniform who were "not playing by the rules".
The reaction of British troops to the unexpectedly severe opposition has been mixed, with some showing little sign of concern and others expressing fear that the war could drag on for months.
Sergeant Mark Smith, 38, a provost sergeant with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, said that he remained determined to remove President Saddam but expected a prolonged struggle.
"It's not the Iraqi army we have to worry about, it's the person with the Kalashnikov in the back garden," he said.
"The Iraqis are smiling assassins. They wave at you as you go past, then shoot you in the back. I thought from the moment we left camp in Germany that this would go on for ages."
Captain Patrick Trueman, also of the dragoon guards, said a lot of thinking had to be done before another attempt to clear Basra was made.
He said: "It was expected that the Iraqi government wouldn't concern itself too much with the fall of Basra because of the perceived hatred of Saddam among the local Shi'ite population.
"We always had the idea that everyone in this area hated Saddam. Clearly, there are a number who don't."
British reporters said some Iraqis tried to lure British infantry into a false sense of security by flying white flags of surrender before opening fire. They were also said to have used women and children as decoys.
As some Desert Rats enjoyed a short respite from battle yesterday, there was time for relaxation.
Troops washed clothes and chatted, while some played music by Simon and Garfunkel and the David Gray song Babylon.
Even at such moments, however, thoughts of the tests ahead were not far away.
"What we really need is Good Morning Vietnam," said one officer. "Yes," agreed another soldier. "That's what we've got here."
· This report was compiled using pooled material
address: Guardian UK
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