'We're at the top of the Basra hit list'

TWO soldiers from Northampton hold key positions in the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment currently serving in southern Iraq.

With recruits as young as 18, some who have never been abroad before, let alone been under fire, Lieutenant George Osborne and Sergeant Major Brian Lewis are the two men they look to for guidance and leadership.

The 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, which recruits from the county, are currently half way through a posting at Shaibah Logistics Base in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, as part of 20th Armoured Brigade on peace keeping and anti-terrorism duties.

Sgt Major Lewis, aged 37, from Northampton walks and talks with the authority of someone who has earned his position after 17 years service.

It is his second posting to Iraq having taken part in the first Gulf war in 1991.

The father-of-two is one of the most experienced soldiers in the battalion with previous tours in Ireland, Sierra Leone, Canada, Kenya and Egypt.

He said: "It is hard out here, there's no shadow of doubt about it. We have to work in really hard conditions but to their credit, the guys just get stuck into it. There's no moaning. A day off would be nice but it's a rarity."

As C Company sergeant major, it helps new recruits to know the man giving orders and looking after their safety comes from the same home town.

Sgt Maj Lewis said: "When the job came up, it was just fortunate the Northampton company was available at the right time. It could quite as easily have been B (Leicestershire) Company."

As brigade reserve, the soldiers of C Company are on constant 30 minutes warning to deal with unexpected events.

At present, their main role has been to conduct strike operations to search and arrest terrorists and anti-Iraqi forces around Basra.

Each suspect's successful arrest or seizure of weapons is met with retaliatory rocket and mortar attacks on their bases.

As most of the weapons are relics from two Gulf Wars, many fail to detonate yet still add to an already heightened state of alert. On Tuesday, a corporal with 1st Infantry Battalion was killed when a rocket exploded inside a UK base in Basra.

Roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices – IEDs in army speak – are a constant danger while on patrol.

In May, a homemade device claimed the lives of two Royal Anglians, emphasising the dangers the soldiers face daily.

In May, Private Adam Morris, 19 and Private Joseva Lewaicei, 25, were killed by a similar device while out on patrol.

Sgt Lewis added: "I would say the worst bit is fear of the unknown. They just plant these devices anywhere. Every time we go out, you have to be on 100 per cent alert Often we don't know what we are going to be facing when we go out of the gates. The arrest operations are certainly the best part.

"The majority of people here want a peaceful life but there are some hardcore who want it back to how it used to be.

"When we arrest someone, it makes it all worthwhile. We're taking their weapons and IEDs out of circulation for good.

"We've had a hell of a busy few weeks.

Lieutenant George Osborne, 25, from Wood End near Towcester, is multi-platoon commander in overall command of 24 soldiers.

He said: "There's been times, I've thought this is a real mess. You don't join the Army just to do nothing.

"It's certainly not quiet out here but we're doing a job which we've been trained to do and actually at times, it's pretty exciting.

"Much of it makes me really love my job. There are obviously other times which are not quite so enjoyable.

"I have had soldiers die out here. The platoon has done really well since then and moved on, in a way, dealt with it.

"We still miss them hugely but you have to carry on and do the job.

"As for the job as reserve company, I wouldn't want any other job out here in Basra. Out of any of the jobs here, we've definitely got the best one.

"It's so varied and certainly not boring. We get to send people away and have a very similar job to a police swat team.

"We don't have to patrol a certain area so we're constantly

looking at new things and seeing different places."

With the specific role The Poachers have in Basra, the recruits are constantly at the pit face in the fight against armed militia.

Two notable successes include the arrest of the leader of the Mahdi army in southern Iraq, and seizure of two tons of weapons.

Lt Osborne said:"It was big raid which was very successful. Unfortunately there was a soldier in our cordon who was shot and subsequently died.

"As with a lot of these operations, special forces blew a way into the building and we went in. That's what we're trained for and we very good at it. They call us the 'Men with Ladders' here because that's what we do.

"I think we're probably at the top of the Basra hit list to try to take us out.

"The essence of what we do is we don't often know what's coming next. It's so fast-paced and all about reacting very quickly to what people tell you.

"You can never really think too hard about what you're doing so you don't get nerves so much.

"As long as it's a worthwhile job, no matter how difficult or dangerous, the guys will do it without question.

"It does feel, as a company, that we're at the sharp end of trying to combat terrorism and help the people of Basra because we are removing some nasty people from the streets.

"Some of the operations seem to blur into one.

"We then found a guy who was more of a background player involved in a lot of the financing.

"We found a lot of stuff there which proved very useful. We do the initial arrests and detention."

Temperatures reach 55 degrees in Iraq, and are expected to top 60 degrees later this month.

Lt Osborne added: "They are trying conditions. It was tough when we lost our friends but the platoon has done really well. They pulled together as a platoon under very adverse conditions, they've performed very well,

"It is amazing how on an operational tour that the guys who don't do so well in England, perhaps because they're bored, have done incredibly well.

"I've got one or two soldiers who have surprised me massively.

"I've been platoon commander for about two years now and I'm incredibly lucky to have a such good bunch of guys.

"I'm still in charge but I don't mind if they take the piss out of me so long as they do what I'm telling them to do.

"It helps with most of us coming from Northamptonshire as we can identify where we're from and talk about home, which while out here is nice.

"I was in A Company before which is from Lincolnshire and I had difficulty because I had no idea where any of them were from.

"The fact I know exactly where these guys are from, sometimes only a few miles down the road, is always helpful.

"When British forces leave in five or 10 years, I hope we can hand over those people in jail and let the locals deal with them.

"Otherwise they will destabalise the country. Most people here are genuinely friendly.

"It's not much two fingers out here as more verbal abuse we don't understand.

"The children, especially, are always friendly and we always try to be nice to them.

"I've never really had any problems with locals here. It's only at night, a small element of people looking for trouble come out and fire at us."