Brits in Basra face a tipping point
From dawn till dusk we had been rocketed or mortared 15 times in Basra Palace — one of the two main British barracks in the southern Iraq capital. There was the usual fear and thrill of coming under enemy fire but that was just for 12 hours and by the evening the novelty was beginning to tire.
It was the start of a six- month tour for the Royal Green Jackets and even in the first week their faces were beginning to look strained.
But by the end of their tour next April it should become clear where Basra is going and whether the British investment of 120 lives and £4 billion has been worth it.
We are now approaching the tipping point in southern Iraq. The area will either sink into the grasp of insurgents and Iranian-sponsored militias or become a beacon of hope for the rest of the country.
At its conclusion next February or March the insurgents might be beaten and the local police purged of all rogue elements. The Iraqi army could evolve into a steady, well-armed force and the politicians could be more willing to shoulder problems they have neglected during three years of having everyone else to blame for them.
That scenario is the Army's ticket for its way out of Iraq and would justify the expenditure of blood and treasure.
But in the meantime they are coming under increasing attack and there appear to be two reasons why.
One is that Operation Sinbad has forced the insurgents on to the back foot. In response to losing their grip on the local population they have increased shelling on British barracks. They are reduced to this form of indirect attack because every time they have used RPGs, gunmen or fixed ambushes they have suffered numerous dead.
But the second answer to the increased violence is that the insurgents are in control. The co-ordinated attacks on British troops demonstrate this and if the Army leaves early next year the Iranian-backed insurgent stooges in the police and local government will take over.
Southern Iraq could then vote to secede from the rest of the country and use its massive oil wealth to become a major pro-Iranian Shia state in the Middle East. The Sunni minority in southern Iraq would become vulnerable to a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign.
But there are a number of obstacles that stand in the way of what would be a disastrous scenario for the coalition forces and Iraq's future.
The British-trained Iraqi army's 10th Division is finally about to receive the hardware that will make it a formidable force when its first Humvees and armoured personnel carriers arrive this month.
There is also a template for what might happen when the British leave.
In the volatile town of Amarah a few weeks after the last British soldier vacated the town eight of its police stations were attacked by Mahdi army militias loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But the Iraqi army stood firm and, with help from senior Iraqi politicians, was able to restore order.
The withdrawal of troops from Amarah also meant there was no target for insurgents, and their propaganda campaign against the "foreign invaders" lost its focus.
While the military is doing all it can to stabilise Basra there is considerable worry among commanders over the planning for the post Operation Sinbad phase. The British consulate has evacuated its well-protected premises down to a skeleton staff. The offices of its provincial reconstruction team are a sea of empty desks and blank computers. Without the funding and planning that needs to happen now, the three-year British struggle in southern Iraq will have been for nothing.
The Army will lose increasing numbers of troops unwilling to return for a fifth or sixth tour, it will struggle to find enough troops for Afghanistan and the mortar attacks will continue with the likelihood that one day a round will find its devastating mark.