By this time I realised the letters were going out to all and sundry so I addressed them as such

Al Qumah

Hi all!

Back in surreal land again! Had a couple of days of dodgy tum (so no poo jokes for a bit) recovered enough this morning to get some water down, and off I went with another ex sicky (Ben) to escort 2 guys with lots of stripes. Visited a school, a petrol station and a local chief - although as we are stripeless we stood around guarding the vehicles and swapping lies with the other riff raff as it were. Now we've got back & I'm attempting some rice crackers (ta mum!) which should be easy on the tum. The surreal bit is the gunfire, which is intermittent - starts up every few hours, lasts a furious few minutes then dies away. None of it is directed at us so we can sit on the roof of the building we're in (an old Ba'ath party HQ) and see if we can spot the perpetrators. At night it's easier as you can see the tracer, but during the day it's impossible - you can't even see the people running away, they're just bimbling about as normal. Insh Allah I expect. Bit like being on crowded Salisbury Plain.

Thanks again for more parcels - got two today with no 'from' and in my glee I've mixed up what came from who - superb! Beano! Excellent little red torch too. Can't wear the shirt or safari vest I'm afraid (British army is a bit funny about that) but if I get a chance to go 'out on the town' (woohoo!) we shall see.

Since we (G sqn) are expecting to be here for 3 weeks - the longest anywhere so far - we're putting up proper showers, toilets, a shop, a fridge! etc. Rumour has it that Y sqn may be going home in a week or two but this is rumour only. I've been asked if I want to stay the full three weeks here & 'finish the job' but I've said I've got plenty of jobs to finish in the UK! "I'm an astrophysicist - get me out of here!" Some others will stay, I think - eg Conn (my officer) as this is a unique opportunity for him - he's commanding a full troop, doing a 'real job' unlike any of the other TA one pippers, so for the sake of a couple of weeks it's worth it. As for me, I'd rather come back and visit without having to carry a rifle.

The local kids are having great fun. They line up on the wall & shout "Mister, mister, give me water" all day, which can be irritating to put it mildly, when you've been stuck in the 'leper colony' with an icky tum, under a camouflage net away from everyone else. So the response was an occasional whimpering "feck off" which kept them highly amused. The paras who were here before us used to sneak up on them under the wall and hit the soles of their feet, which they found even more amusing and became a great game. I think they're rather disappointed in us!

Chatting with the locals while guarding the cars has been quite fun so far - some have claimed to be in the Iraqi army, many want to move to the UK, and I've had several offers for my sister, sight unseen, so there you go Sue. I don't think any of the offers were sufficiently high though. Yet. While the pipped & stripey folks were visiting the chief, I was on the radio listening to a big car chase, our guys in the brown cars chasing 'Ali Barbas' who had been hassling folks and trying to run them out of their houses. Sounded like something out of the Blues Brothers, except without the "use of extreme violence has been approved" - we're just supposed to wave menacingly and write them nasty notes condemning their actions. Unless they're silly enough to point weapons at us.

Anyway, hopefully the local Big Cheese is going to order folks back to work - he's got both secular and church power and some very sweet tea. Not-quite-so-stripey-person said he could feel his teeth rotting as he drank it. Should have had me in there... I can hold my tea... not my beer any more...

Electricity is back on here already, medical supplies arrived this morning; hopefully soon water and cell phones. And as soon as the police are back on duty we'll spend a bit of time with them to make sure they don't get too carried away, then we can all go home - except for a few peace keeping types.... seems to be a shortage of volunteers!

Weather is fine, hotel is just like in the brochure, the staff here need a bit of customer care training but do try hard, and the food is dreadful. Next time I go abroad I'm using a different company!

Cheers for now - thanks for snacks, newspapers, tinned fish and aerogrammes. Looking forward to a beer in "weeks, few" as they insist on saying around here

Mara Salaam