Home » I can say British soldiers did not die in vain as we mark twentieth anniversary of the Iraq War, says Head of the Army

I GREW up in Baghdad in the seventies. 

My father was the Defence Attaché and it was an amazing place to live.

General Sir Patrick Sanders shares his own experiences in Iraq


General Sir Patrick Sanders shares his own experiences in IraqCredit: PA
The Head of the Army also says the Iraq War anniversary 'is a chance to remember what went right as well as what went wrong'


The Head of the Army also says the Iraq War anniversary ‘is a chance to remember what went right as well as what went wrong’Credit: Rex Features

The Iraqis were incredibly kind, I could cycle anywhere I liked in the city, we went camping in the desert at weekends and we grilled huge river carp by the banks of the Tigris. 

The Iraq I returned to in 2007 as commander of the 4th Battalion,
the Rifles was a very different place.

The young Riflemen who I had the privilege to command quickly dubbed our base in Basra Palace, “probably the worst palace in the world” – after the Carlsberg ads of the time.

From May to September that year we took thousands of rounds of rockets and mortars. We were hit by about 100 roadside bombs.

We faced snipers. We faced small arms fire. Going into the city meant an almost 100% chance of getting into in a firefight.

That year alone, 47 British soldiers were killed and 202 were
wounded. Many of the fallen were from my own regiment.

So as we mark the twentieth anniversary of the Iraq conflict, I
understand why many veterans will remember it with mixed feelings. 

It took me a long time to come back from what my regiment had been through. 

I went to some dark places. But, to my mind, to look back on Operation Telic – the name given to the British campaign in Iraq – gives us a unique opportunity. 

For veterans still dealing with the physical and mental scars of difficult days, it is a chance to talk about our experiences.

For it was only when I began having such conversations with friends that I understood my feelings were normal; their empathy and understanding helped me lift my eyes and move forward.

The benefit of hindsight also brings perspective. The anniversary is a chance to remember what went right as well as what went wrong.

Op Telic was an extraordinary effort – one of the largest British deployments since the end of World War 2.

It involved all three services. Some 46,000 troops were initially deployed and among them were 9,500 reservists.

The UK sent 19 warships, 14 Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, 15,000 vehicles, 115 fixed-wing aircraft and nearly 100 helicopters to the Gulf. 

Despite being the first experience of a “hot war” for many, the successes of British forces in the early days were extraordinary. 

They rapidly took the port city of Umm Qasr. The liberation of Basra saw our troops win the largest tank battle that British Forces have been engaged in since World War 2.

And, alongside our brilliant US allies, they deposed a brutal dictator.

Having lived in Iraq before Saddam I knew how much the Iraqi people had suffered under his regime.

And I knew how delighted they were that he had gone.

Tough years followed. The flames of insurgency burned and thanks to the late Sir John Chilcot many lessons have been learned.

But we shouldn’t forget the courage of our soldiers. I saw them learn. I saw them adapt. I saw their resilience and fighting spirit build – despite some very heavy hits.

Private Michelle Norris became the first woman to receive the Military Cross. 

At just 19, barely out of basic training and under furious fire, she pulled her badly wounded patrol commander to safety.

Private Johnson Beharry received the first Victoria Cross awarded
in the 21st century.

Despite being badly wounded by enemy rocket propelled grenades, he still managed to get his injured comrades out of danger.

Many veterans of Iraq still serve today. Michelle Norris is now a Sergeant with 22 Field Hospital. Johnson Beharry has recently been promoted to Sergeant Major.

The Iraq war still provokes strong opinions. But today we put those debates to one side.

Wreaths will be laid beside the memorial to the Iraq and Afghanistan war in Whitehall and at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Like other veterans my thoughts will be with old friends.

Those who continue to serve, those long retired and those who never made it home.

Over eight years thousands were injured, many innocent Iraqis
died and 179 British personnel paid the ultimate price. 

Their sacrifice was not in vain. 

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Their service laid the foundations for a powerful partnership with the Iraq government; a partnership that continues to help rebuild that proud country I remember from my childhood and bring stability to the wider region.

And today, in a time more dangerous than any I have known in uniform, those desert warriors remain a true inspiration. They showed us that true grit, dogged determination and offensive spirit will always be needed to win the battles of future days.

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