A very interesting post from Mark Mitchell about his time in Iraq, where he worked with Rory Stewart, one of the contenders for the UK Conservative Party leadership.
Rory and I first met when we both served in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraq reconstruction programme back in 2003-2004. We were based in Nasiriyah, the 4th largest city in Iraq (approx. 370kms South East of Baghdad), situated on the Euphrates River. The CPA was responsible for delivering new central and local government elections, rehabilitating the courts, training and equipping the Iraqi Police Service, construction of critical infrastructure and developing new sports and cultural facilities to name a few.
Stuff most people would support.
Rory was the Deputy Governor, and I was part of two, four man close protection teams. We had a guard force of 30 ex-Filipino Rangers, three Guard Commanders – one being an ex-Delta Force Operator and two US Navy Seals. We also had a platoon of approx. 15 Italian soldiers and several journalists and project managers from the UK, Denmark, USA and Italy. There were roughly 80 CPA personnel on the compound at any given time.
The only personnel authorised to leave the compound were the close protection teams and that was either for reconnaissance purposes or to move Rory or other CPA personnel to and from meetings. Our job simply was to get these personnel there and back in one piece. I was relieved at the end of my time, leading a team that I hadn’t lost anyone and no one under our protection had been killed or captured. Sometimes I think this is a miracle when I consider the amount of tight situations we had to work our way out of. I want to pay tribute to friends and team members that never made it home and those that came home pretty banged up. They made the ultimate sacrifice protecting others and in my view, this is one of the greatest sacrifices one human can make for another.
That sounds scary enough, but worse to come.
Where I really saw Rory’s Leadership credentials on display was when the Shia Cleric Muqtada Al Sadr called for an uprising of the Mahdi Militia across Iraq. The order was to attack the coalition and CPA compounds around the country – it felt like every terrorist in Iraq came for the party.
Suddenly, we were stuck in a postage stamp sized compound, cut off from support, surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered. As the attack started it very quickly became intense. The Italian soldiers were posted on the roof of our only hard building. This was the only high point that a defence could be mounted. It was very exposed and had minimal cover or protection from fire
Journalists and CPA staff were put in rooms in the centre of the hard building protected as well as we could with sandbags and windows covered with mattresses. Our job as the close protection teams was to protect the journalists and civilians as a last line of defence. If the military defence from the roof failed and the perimeter was breached by the Militia we were realistic about the outcome of a CQB fight with 8 of us against hundreds of pumped up insurgents. We would stick together and do our best.
Everything changed rapidly when two Italian soldiers were badly injured by an incoming mortar round with one having his spinal cord severed. The rest of the Italians abandoned the roof. There has been heavy criticism of the Italians and the fact posts were abandoned. I accept that but I also had some sympathy for them. They were barely out of their teens, many probably conscripts and the truth of the matter was their chain of command was often polarised in terms of decision making. On saying that, I saw many acts of bravery by Italian soldiers during my time in Iraq. We had to get a defence up quickly on the roof and so both close protection teams and Zac and Pete the two ex-US Navy seals headed for the roof. It was complete chaos with tracer fire lighting up the night sky, mortars being walked onto us, an RPG round flew straight over the top of my head as I ran across the roof. We quickly learned how to live in the prone position. We had a car bomb driven at speed towards our rear perimeter which would have created a massive breach that the insurgents could have swarmed through. One of our team, an ex-British SAS soldier bought one of the Italian 50 caliber rifle’s to bear and stopped the vehicle reaching us by taking out the engine block. It was a challenging time.
While all this was going on Rory’s composure and leadership is what helped keep a sense of calm, organisation and focus in what was a situation completely out of control. He provided updates to Baghdad and Basra who in all fairness were dealing with an uprising around the whole country. He worked hard to get us air support. He monitored food, water and ammunition supply’s and kept us updated.
Says a lot about both Mitchell and Stewart that they kept calm during this. Stewart isn’t going to win the leadership contest, but he has impressed enough people that he would be a stronger contender in future.