Soldier prince: Why didn’t top brass see this coming?

MARK NICHOLLS As it emerges that Prince Harry will not be sent to Iraq because it is too dangerous, EDP defence writer MARK NICHOLLS looks at the implications of this decision for Britain’s armed forces.

MARK NICHOLLS

After the "will he, won't he" of the last few weeks, it is now clear that Prince Harry will not be deployed to Iraq.

What has happened is that the military top brass have realised what the rest of us have known all along. It is just too dangerous a place for the third in line to the throne to be sent to.

Yet the scenario over 22-year-old Cornet Wales' deployment, instead of being handled in a dignified manner fitting of military organisation, has turned into a complete fiasco.

From the moment Harry joined the army, it should have been apparent that if the same criteria was to apply to him as to the rest of those serving in the armed forces, he would sooner or later be sent to one of the world's hot spots, whether that be Afghanistan or Iraq.

That is what happens nowadays. Because Britain's military is so stretched in so many different locations, anyone who joins up will be sent into the "medal zone".

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And with that, there is a fair chance that at some point they will be shot at, be mortared or caught in a roadside bomb.

As soon as Harry signed on the dotted line, he was in the firing line, a prize-in-waiting for the insurgency.

From the moment it looked like he was to go to Iraq with the Blues and Royals as an armoured reconnaissance officer - some time about now - he became target number one for a whole array of insurgents operating in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

To mix a metaphor, working that one out was not "rocket" science.

So why did British commanders take so long to deal with the situation? The decision should have been taken months ago.

Yes, it has to be accepted that the situation has changed: that instead of Iraq being a relatively safe zone to serve in with the insurgents suppressed, the plan has been blown off course and it is now very much one of the danger zones in which a British soldier is now required to operate.

But that is what happens in armed conflict - things do not always go to plan.

Earlier, this week, after much consultation and a visit to Iraq, the head of the British army General Sir Richard Dannatt, took the decision that Prince Harry will not be sent to Iraq because of the "unacceptable risks".

He said the deployment would pose a threat to him and those serving alongside him. It is a massive U-turn on an earlier decision but comes as militant groups in Iraq were planning attempts to kidnap or kill the prince.

Harry, who has wanted to be treated all along as any other soldier, is reported to be "very disappointed". Clarence House was quick to make the point that Harry will not be leaving the army.

But that decision by Sir Richard, and of Harry wishing to stay in the army, presents as many problems as it solves.

The list of unanswered questions is endless and top of them is: "What are we going to do with Prince Harry and his army career?"

And beyond that are all the other issues, the questions parents and family of serving personnel will be asking: If Iraq is too dangerous for Harry, why isn't it too dangerous for my son or daughter?

Will recruitment to the armed services be dealt a blow as a result?

And what message does this send out to the insurgents who have seemingly won a major victory without a shot being fired?

Dickie Arbiter, the former press secretary to the Queen, said the matter had been handled "pretty badly."

Of Harry, he added: "He'll be disappointed that he can't go with his men, the men he's trained with for months to do this job."

Troop commander Wales, as he is known, had been determined to fulfil his duty and the Iraq role he has spent months preparing for. Part of that has been conducted in Norfolk at the Stanta training area near Thetford.

Harry was due to be operating in the southern area of Iraq with the Blues and Royals in the coming weeks, but his planned deployment to the war-torn country coincided with one of the bloodiest months for British service personnel in the region since hostilities began in 2003. Some 11 servicemen lost their lives in that area in April.

If Harry had gone to Iraq, he would have been the first member of the Royal family to see active service in a war zone since his uncle Prince Andrew flew a helicopter during the Falklands conflict 25 years ago.

Prince Harry graduated from Sandhurst in April last year and qualified as an armoured reconnaissance troop leader in October. His rank of Cornet is used by cavalry units, including the Blues and Rules, and is the equivalent of 2nd Lieutenant.

Now, his military career could already be at a halt.

Major Charles Heyman, editor of Armed Forces UK, said he thought the prince would now almost certainly leave the army with his credibility affected by the decision not to deploy him to Iraq. The army is pondering Harry's future but many observers suspect the prince will not be content to accept a "non-job".

Meanwhile, relatives of personnel killed in Iraq in the past have reacted to the decision.

Reg Keys, whose son Thomas died on active service in Basra in 2003 said he found the decision distasteful

"It would appear that Harry's life is more valuable than my son or the other nearly 150 service personnel who've given their lives," he said.

The British military has been guilty of a lack of foresight over the Prince Harry/Iraq debacle and failing to plan for all potential scenarios.

Yet it wouldn't be the first time the British military has been accused of a lack of foresight and forward planning in the Iraq theatre.

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