In Iraq with Marham's aircrews

Ground crew and airmen from RAF Marham have begun their latest deployment in Operation Telic - the war in Iraq. Defence correspondent BEN KENDALL reports in the first in a series from the Middle East.

The journey to the Gulf state from which Marham's 31 Squadron is currently providing Tornado air force in the coalition effort in Iraq is a strange one.

Were it not for the combat fatigues worn by 95pc of passengers in the Brize Norton departure lounge, it would be easy to imagine you are waiting for a civilian flight to a holiday destination. This illusion persists when you find yourself dozing off to an in-flight movie - the latest Indiana Jones - above 10,000ft.

It is only when I glance over to the seat next to me and see a uniformed 18-year-old on his first ever deployment tucking into a typical airline meal of bangers and mash that reality dawns - there is a chance he will be returning home injured, or not at all.

The exact location of the airbase I am visiting is restricted for diplomatic and security reasons. It is home to more than 450 Brits and some 9,000 US troops. From here coalition forces fly key missions in both Operation Telic and Herrick, the Afghanistan war.

It is an alien landscape bulldozed to the ground and bearing no relation to the terrain beyond the wire. Although it's October and the heat is past its peak, temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees. There is no discernible horizon, just acres of dust and an unremitting sky unpunctuated by clouds.

The scale of the base is immense - five times the size of Brize Norton, the UK's largest air base. The Americans have recently signed a new 99-year lease with the local government indicating that, while these two wars may not last quite that long, they certainly anticipate the need to maintain a major presence in the region for years to come.

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In some ways it is a home from home. There are cinemas and bars, albeit with a three-drink per day limit, along with air-conditioned gyms (you do not know the meaning of the word humiliation until you have tried working out with unfamiliar machinery in a room full of muscle-bound American airmen). There is even a branch of the omnipresent coffee chain Starbucks.

This may be a frontline base but, as it is not inside a war zone, there are no mortars or rockets and, while the current political and military climate remains, no immediate threat of attack .

But it would be wrong to describe this barren place as luxurious.

Conditions still fall well below that which civilians would call a decent quality of life - and below the standard which these brave men and women deserve.

Many must work demanding 12-hour-plus shifts in what can only be described - for once using the cliché justifiably - as a climate akin to a sauna. While the ground crews toil on base, the airmen spend entire days airborne with little respite between operations.

The nature of staggered shifts means that, no matter what time of day, the base is populated by troops going through the routines of daily life: exercising at 2am, eating breakfast at midnight and endless rows o ces behind laptop screens, earnestly communicating with loved ones.

On my first day I bump into Marham ground crew on their day off - they had finished work at 6am and must start again at 8am the following day.

It is not uncommon for them to work 14 days without a break. They have little time for anything more than eating, washing and sleeping.

When they do get time there is a social side to life on base, but often the men and women are too tired to relax properly and there is an intense feeling of claustrophobia.

The facilities do however tell a story. Five years ago this was largely a tented camp with only the most basic amenities. It is now home to many permanent structures and never-ending development. This exposes the enduring nature of the war - even the Americans would not invest this much money if they did not intend to stay.

Two-thirds of 31 Squadron are here on a two-month deployment and Marham's 9 Squadron will arrive in December. It is from here that they provided air cover for the withdrawal from Basra palace last year but, with Iraq now a much more stable conflict, their present role is largely reconnaissance. It is quite possible the squadron will return to the UK without dropping a single bomb, something which will be considered a success.

By 2010 the Tornados will be deployed to Afghanistan. While the war in Iraq is, for the time being, considered manageable, the war further north is a different matter. There is no immediate light at the end of the Afghani tunnel and fighting remains as intense as ever.

Life for our troops here is tough, but it will get even tougher in the years to come.