By Richard Edwards in Umm Qasr, Southern Iraq
Lance Corporal James Blanchard always smiles when he passes by, says a quick hello and asks what is happening in the news.
Yesterday, when I told him, his face dropped. Gone was the pleasant grin and attentive stare. He looked at his feet, screwed up his face and swore.
Like all British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blanchard is professional, respectful, honest. He had captured two Iraqi prisoners of war yesterday and attended dutifully to the rules of arrest.
To hear that elsewhere two of his fellow servicemen had been executed in cold blood was something he struggled to take in.
“It is disgusting,” he said. “We are dealing with Iraqi prisoners of war every day. We treat them by the rule book – we are firm but fair.
“But the main thing is we treat them in the same way as we would like to be treated if we were captured.
“We see this and think, ‘What’s the point?'”
Marine Andy Jarvis, lying on the floor and reading a paper, took a harder line.
“It makes us want to fight a lot harder and fight to the bloody end,” he said.
“If we know this is the kind of treatment we can expect as prisoners of war, then fighting to the death is the better option.”
Royal Marines based in Umm Qasr, southern Iraq, had another busy day.
They have patrolled the streets of the town for the past 48 hours, balancing aid and aggression.
Around every street corner is a barefoot child smiling, waving and asking for water. But in another road there is a potential soldier dressed as a civilian, or a sniper about to appear in a window.
They say it is like patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland, only the area is more deprived and severe, the surroundings even less welcoming.
After their three-hour shifts searching houses, picking up discarded weapons and, inevitably, dealing with dozens of men surrendering, they rest back in camp with a hot drink and some food.
The first thing they want to know is the news. Lance-Corporal Nick Young said: “We have been separated from home for the past two months – no TV, limited radio and only old newspapers to read.
“On the front line, it is so hard to keep track of what is going on. We hope to hear good news, to hear support and success. Then sometimes we are hit with something like this.” Losses in the field, accidents, friendly fire – all, in the eyes of most soldiers, are hazards of their trade.
But torture and execution of prisoners of war is an evil step beyond.
Lance-Corporal Blanchard said: “An ambush is a part of war, as is being held as a prisoner. But this, execution, is something far different. It is a dark, disgusting discovery. The people who did this have stepped out of the bounds of war.
“The news of this will shock every Royal Marine. These so-called soldiers, secret police, or whoever they are can be warned: we will fight them hard.” In a typical dinnertime scene, officers dipped in to their ration packs with their brown plastic spoons as they discussed the wider world.
The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Buster Howes, heard the news of the two executions, paused and put down his food.
“It just makes us angry, so angry,” he said.
“These people are not soldiers – they show not only a lack of discipline in the way they fight, but also in the way they behave.
“All they have done here is to show they are inhuman.” Regimental Sergeant Major Zach Printer did not flinch or show any sign of emotion. He simply stared.
“This is not something that makes us scared, that lowers morale or influences us negatively,” he said.
“It strengthens our resolve.”
© Western Daily Press