It starts with a wail: a siren warning of incoming mortar or rocket fire. You hit the ground, burying your face in the thin cold mud of the Iraqi winter. Next you hear the distinctive burp of the counter-mortar guns: modified naval Phalanx anti-ship cannons that fire nearly 5,000 20-millimeter shells per minute. If you happen to be looking upwards, you might see a stream of liquid fire rising from the guns and striking the incoming rounds. Pop! Pop! The pieces of the destroyed mortar stream to the ground. They’re still dangerous: a BBC satellite van was peppered by a destroyed rocket. It blew out all the windows and poked holes in the sides and roof, but fortunately no one was hurt.
You wait a few minutes. That’s when, if you’re not already wearing them, you throw on your body armor and helmet. Then back on the ground or into the nearest bunker you go until the all-clear sounds.
As British forces consolidate at Basra Air Station, chased all the way by mortar and rocket attacks, the base is more heavily fortified than ever. I should know. This is my fourth trip here in three years. These days the tables in the dining hall are surrounded by concrete. Everyone sleeps in single-serving bunkers that are as cold as caves. Body armor and helmets are carried at all times. Troops tool around the grounds in 30-ton Mastiff armored trucks. All this fortification means deaths from indirect fire are down. But one side effect is a siege mentality that make today’s Basra Air Station one of the more unpleasant bases I’ve visited in my three-year war reporting career.
Check out the counter-mortar gun in action in the test footage below:
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