How I spent three months in Saddam Hussein’s Basra palace in Iraq
- Credit: Phillip Gough
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars impacted thousands of people in our region. In the third in our week-long series looking at their legacy, reporter Liz Coates talks to Phillip Gough about his time in Basra.
To many, Saddam's lavish palace complete with ornate ceilings, giant pillars and golden taps was a symbol of all that had gone wrong, an affront to Iraqi victims of appalling atrocities.
For Phillip Gough it was his place of work during the conflict.
For 24 hours at a time it was his unit's job to keep lookout from the heavily fortified turrets, in full battle dress, a fixed machine gun and bayonet at his disposal.
A chicane of sand-filled tanks protected the entrance where everyone who came in was patted down, their vehicle thoroughly checked over for anything that could kill, and barbed wire ringed the once scenic riverside.
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In the weeks before the 29-year-old arrived, the palace - really a collection of buildings - had been mortared and was considered "a hot target."
They were tense times and the solider's rifle was always ready to be deployed.
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Mr Gough was working as a housing officer looking at tenancy problems with Great Yarmouth Borough Council in 2003 when he was mobilised with the Territorial Army (now the Army Reserves) to work with the coalition forces following the outbreak of the second Gulf War in March of that year.
It meant leaving his wife and young children and looking down the barrel at the distinct possibility he might not come back to them.
His role was to patrol the local area "winning hearts and minds" and to protect Basra Palace which was being used as a base for coalition forces.
He was there when Saddam was captured, tracer rounds of bullets flashing across the sky as locals celebrated.
Inside the palace walls a whole community ticked along with shops, laundry and even a local tailor, but outside people lived in poverty rummaging through rubbish for food and things to sell.
He said: "I was working at the council when it all kicked off and rumours started going around about the TA being mobilised.
"I got my instructions and work had to release me.
"I was so excited. Most of us were more than keen to put our hands up.
"We were trained for it and there are not many opportunities, fortunately, to put it into practice.
"Pre-tour training took place in Lowestoft and Norwich, with two weeks in Grantham and more training in Germany in our desert kit in the snow.
"We arrived in Iraq in a 20-year-old Argentinian Boeing with bits of plastic falling off it and literally nose-dived into Basra to avoid the RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). It was midday and the hottest place on Earth. It was unbelievable.
"Part of my job was to unload the baggage and when we went to the airport it was surreal. There was a marble floor and baggage carousel, you could have been in Tenerife.
"When we collected our body armour and headed to Shaibah, a tent city, it stopped being a holiday. It wasn't the best, the flies were everywhere. You would eat with one hand and constantly bat them away with the other.
"A couple of us went down with D and V [diarrhoea and vomiting] and we held the dubious record of having the most people ill at the same time and they had to open another ward for us. It was three days of hell.
"When we got to Basra our home was the palace, one of Saddam Hussein's but now a coalition base.
"There were marble floors and ceilings and an Iraqi tailor who would make you a suit. It was surrounded by walls and we had to man the sentry towers."
As part of the Force Protection Company with the East of England Regiment (now part of 3 Royal Anglians) doing front gate searches and patrols he was also a media body guard, chaperoning Sky and BBC reporters, often perched on the back of a vehicle his weapon searching out potential attackers in the dust.
Mingling with the Iraqi people was one of the highlights Mr Gough, now an emergency medical technician with the ambulance service and retained firefighter in Martham, said, swapping packed lunches with crisps and chocolates with anything the children wanted to hand over.
He said there were a few "hairy moments", one man waving his gun in the air and shouting turned out to be in possession of a particularly fine looking cigarette lighter and was in fact hailing their presence and thanking his God. In the end, coming home was harder than going out there, he said. He was completely glued to the news and his job felt "mundane."
But overall it was a positive experience, full of adventure and new experiences that seemed to make a difference on the ground to the ordinary people who had lived under Saddam's regime.