REPORTER: David Brill
It’s early morning and the soldiers from Overwatch Battle Group West are getting ready to go out on patrol.
This isn’t a training exercise. The men are being briefed to expect trouble – everything from roadside bombs to attacks from insurgents.
OFFICER: Return fire if the target is identified. Consolidate all personnel. I will make a quick assessment and if necessary we will fight our way out.
The commander is Lieutenant-Colonel Mick Mahy. He tells me he wants to meet with a local sheik.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: Today we’re going forward. I am going to be speaking to Sheik Raysan who is the co-paramount sheik for the al-Sadi tribe, the largest tribe in al-Muthanna province.
As we barrel down the road, our gunner has his finger on the trigger every inch of the way, for 2.5 hours. We’ve now crossed back into al-Muthanna province. It’s where the Australians were first deployed in the south before handing over security to the Iraqis. Security remains all important and there’s other diggers we can’t see on the perimeter, plus patrols circling even further out. The meeting begins with small talk but it’s also an opportunity to pick up much needed intelligence about the local area. Sheik Raysan has problems with feuding families who’ve taken up weapons to solve their dispute. Colonel Mahy has come to check on the latest details. As the talking continues, something’s happened in the distance.
SOLDIER: We’re unsure at the moment. The kids are pointing to something.
REPORTER: I could hear a bit of noise over there.
SOLDIER: Yeah, I think I saw something myself. Boys, get ready. We’re going to collapse in. Trigger, you will collapse in first.
“Collapse in” means the patrols are drawing back to defend their position. It seems one of the patrols operating further out has been attacked.
SHEIK, (Translation): I have the Australian commander here with me. He told me the Mehdi Army has attacked one of their patrols.
The Mehdi Army is made up of fighters loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s leading Shia clerics.
SHEIK, (Translation): Could you send the army or the police? To that area. No not to our area. I’m worried they’d get attacked.
TRANSLATOR: We’re very sorry because now there is media and this accident happened.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: It would have happened on one of the approaches into al-Samawa. So 1-1-Alpha would have been manoeuvring into a position in or close to al-Samawa and been fired at. What we will do now is we will just stay out of the road and leave this for the police because none of my soldiers have been hurt.
It might seem unusual that this heavily armoured patrol doesn’t go after their attackers but the Colonel says he’s not interested in stirring up trouble.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: Yes, we could take the cudgel up and go forward against the militia. I certainly have the firepower and I really do have a superior force here, but to actually do that would be like pouring petrol on a bush fire. So what we actually do is we actually disengage and we leave the sabre-rattling up to the militia.
Just before we leave, Colonel Mahy has more details on the attack, which included a number of rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, being fired at his troops.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: There was something like a report of five RPGs being fired at my call sign. It was a drive-by shooting at long distance. No injuries or casualties occurred. And I was able to discuss it with the sheik. He was very keen to provide us with support, he wanted to grab his weapon and go with me and charge off after the enemy but we reassured him that it was a police issue. There was no harm or offence against our business.
REPORTER: Who were theses people firing at the Australians, at your men?
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: It’s not confirmed. It’s highly likely that it’s Mehdi Army. A mobile patrol. They would have had surveillance on the major roads in. They would have heard by the mobile phone. They would have thrown some RPGs in the car and come out looking for trouble. And then clearing off as quickly as they can. They do take long shots, impossibly long shots with RPGs, which indicates a lack of expertise and also that they’re not very comfortable firing at Australians because they know we will bite back.
I hope the Colonel is right. The journey home is the most dangerous part of the day. Dusk provides good cover for an attack. The troops are edgy and tired, they’ve been out in the 50-degree heat all day. Next morning it’s off to the range for a taste of the battle group’s firepower. This is an important part of the routine in Iraq – maintaining the weapons and the shooting skills of the troops. At the base that evening we were just starting to wind down – if that’s possible in Iraq – when I heard three loud booms. We were under attack. Someone was firing rockets at us. I was ordered to put on my flak jacket, my helmet and get on the floor. That’s where I stayed for two hours.
I found out later there were no casualties and no damage. We were lucky. I was told Dhi Qar province was one of the safer places in Iraq but the attack shows just how unstable the country is.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: The number of attacks on Australian forces since we have arrived in Iraq has increased, there is no doubting that.
And with all this tension and sometimes tedium, what do the diggers do for relaxation? Well, here’s one example. This barbeque is held once a month.
RSM DAVID HATTON: Here is a classic example of this sub-unit today just identifying that they hadn’t had time to get together. There are a couple of awards and announcements. And just by using their own commonsense in regards to thinking about coming together and looking for – we all share a common goal – and providing an opportunity for everyone to get together and let a bit of stress out.
But letting a bit of stress out can sometimes land the soldiers and the army in hot water.
MAN: Am I a woman?
These controversial images of troops skylarking posted on the Internet created a big stink. The army read the riot act to those involved but the Prime Minister said the boys were just “letting off a bit of steam.” The incident came in a bad period for the army. It was still grappling with the controversy surrounding the death of Private Jake Kovco.
REPORTER: Colonel, with the Kovco incident and the photos of soldiers letting off a bit of steam, as the PM said, what are your views about that and the morale in the forces overseas, particularly here in Iraq?
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: The death of Private Kovco was obviously a tragic incident and I feel deeply for his family and also for the soldiers in the security detachment that he worked with. The photos are disappointing. But the people who have expressed the greatest level of disappointment in the photos have been the soldiers that served in the battle group itself.
Today it’s time to head out again. It takes a while to prepare a convoy of vehicles. And, as usual, the diggers are prepared to fight if they have to. We’re off to a training camp for Iraqi soldiers, a key part of the mission. The camp is only 8 kilometres down the road but each passing car may be a mobile bomb, every person a possible suicide bomber. You would think the training area would be secure but Iraq is so unpredictable, the diggers are taking no chances. They’re checking for booby traps or other nasty surprises that might have turned up overnight. Out on the parade ground the Iraqis are going through their paces, trained, it seems, by their own people. That’s different from last time I was here when the Aussies were doing the training.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: The other task we have here in Muthanna and Dhi Qar is as a stand-by force to be prepared to provide assistance to the Iraqi security forces should the security situation turn bad.
Four weeks ago the situation turned very bad. The Australians were caught in a large firefight in al-Muthanna province. They were under intense fire lasting over an hour. This is the first time they’ve spoken to the media about their experience.
CSM ANDREW STUART: I mean, we had a range of AKs being fired back at us. Also a range of light machine guns. Thankfully no heavy machine guns that we noticed. And over an hour there was probably, of that hour, at least 20 minutes of heavy fire.
PRIVATE DALE MOONEY: There was police on the street as well and they weren’t very far from the police so we were sort of torn between maybe they’re helping the police and maybe that’s just civilian-attired police so we held fire on that. Once things started to escalate and RPGs were getting fired, we had taken a couple of rounds, the police were still just there doing basically nothing. But in their position I probably would have done the same. You have got two enemies, an enemy on either side basically and whoever you fire at is going to shoot back. But we started taking rounds, we had to pop down. None of the Iraqi army people were real keen on staying up in the towers with us.
CORP. WESLEY WOOD: Obviously they located some of the pits that we were positioned in and we started to receive small arms and a small amount of machine gun fire at that time, just prior to them leaving the Iraqi army barracks.
PRIVATE DALE MOONEY: After a while distinctly a shot rang out and it was That like if there hadn’t had been a cement wall there in front I probably would have took it.
REPORTER: You could hear it going past?
PRIVATE DALE MOONEY: Oh yeah. It hit the cement like right there. It was like three or four inches in front of me, an inch below. Took the concrete to the face from the blast. After that we kept our heads down pretty low, just putting the bare minimum up. I just kept sending all the info back, that we’ve got a lot of people moving around. There are 200 people on the streets. You can see people with weapons in among them but you just can’t fire.
The shootout took on international significance. The chief of the British Army cited it as an example of how foreign forces in Iraq were making the security situation worse, not better. He said that British troops should be withdrawn soon.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD DANNATT, HEAD OF BRITISH ARMED FORCES: I was there”¦ a week or two ago and there”¦ into Al Muthanna Province, an Australian patrol going to have a meeting with a leader and it was attacked. And the view was simply by the local militias, “You’ve left here, why have you come back? Your presence isn’t welcome.” And they were attacked on that basis.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: The situation would be far worse if we weren’t here. And every country and nation here is entitled to their opinion about the war in Iraq. And his comments aside, the fact remains that we’re here at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, we’re here to help Iraq become a stable country and that stability will only be arrived at by an Iraqi solution.
Before I finish interviewing the soldiers there’s an emergency alarm. They bolt out of the tent. They’re like cats on a hot tin roof after the rocket of a couple of days ago. But it turns out this is only a false alarm. Meanwhile, even as international debate intensifies about whether foreign forces should pull out of Iraq, if you listen to the Colonel, there is progress being made.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL MICHAEL MAHY: You can become very Baghdad-centric out here in southern Iraq. You can look at terrorism from a global perspective, then say that progress isn’t being made. But we’re well on the path of handing Iraq across to the Iraqis. We have got a vital role to play in that. We are at the leading edge of that process. So, yeah, I can see progress. I can particularly see progress here in southern Iraq.
We’ve got an emerging government, we’ve got an emerging provinces that are coming under Iraqi control and we’re seeing the emergence of an Iraqi solution, and it’s not going to be anywhere near what we consider normal, democratic society in Australia. We are exceptionally privileged in Australia. I don’t think many people realise how privileged we are.