SOLDIERS from Cheshire have been in the thick of fierce fighting in Iraq as tension mounts over the prisoner abuse scandal.
Troops from 1st Battalion the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment clashed on Saturday with a hostile mob loyal to the radical Muslim cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr who had ordered his followers to turn their rage on to coalition troops.
For four hours gun battles raged across the southern city of Basra with soldiers from the 460-strong Cheshire Regiment, the King's Regiment and members of the Iraqi Police Service.
Captain Richard Sernberg, of the Cheshires, said the soldiers remained cool under fire, professional, and determined to preserve the peace and help Iraqis bring some semblance of order to a war-ravaged province.
Captain Sernberg, speaking to The Chronicle from his regimental base in Basra yesterday, confirmed there had been skirmishes between Iraqi insurgents and members of the regiment but the soldiers had done a sterling job and remain positive in a tense atmosphere.
He said: 'On Saturday there were a number of incidents involving the soldiers from the Cheshire Regiment and the Iraqi Police Service in the early hours of the morning in various parts of the city while soldiers were out on patrol. We dealt with the incidents which were fairly sporadic quickly and no-one from the regiment was injured.'
'We are involved in mentoring the police service and our soldiers are on patrol with them. Our supportive role of the police service is going well, they are making swift progress.'
Captain Sernberg said the regiment was undeterred by a bounty put on the heads of all UK troops in Basra by Al Sadr in a bid to wage war on the coalition.
Since the battalion deployed to Iraq, units have carried out a number of search operations recovering weapons including four rockets, two of which had been fired at the airport.
The Cheshire Regiment arrived in Basra three weeks ago with the atmosphere in Iraq likened to a hornets' nest following the publication of photographs showing coalition troops torturing Iraqis.
Captain Sernberg confirmed that Basra residents have been alarmed by pictures of alleged incidents and have questioned members of the regiment about photographs in the international media
He said: 'People do come up to the soldiers out on patrol and ask them about the photographs but none of the soldiers have been attacked or targeted. We have got the consensus of support from the majority of the people of Basra. There is, however, a small percentage who have been trying to inflame the situation.'
The Cheshire Regiment is training Iraqi police and the civil service in preparation of the hand-over to a sovereign government on June 30.
Captain Sernberg said: 'We expect there is probably going to be some problems up to June 30. We don't know exactly what they will be but we will deal with them professionally as and when they occur.'
The Cheshires remain very upbeat and have been busy winning the trust and friendship of Basra residents by repairing roads, sorting out the sanitary system, distributing food and medical supplies and helping everyday life in a war-torn province run as smoothly as possible.
The regiment has helped set up a fruit and vegetable market to help improve the quality of life for people in Basra by supporting the local economy.
Captain Sernberg added: 'Soldiers morale is very good. They have been well trained and are prepared for what is certainly a demanding and challenging environment. They don't like being separated from their family and friends but they are getting on with their job.'