Why you don't hear about our brave boys

Our rulers want us to believe that southern Iraq is stable. In fact, Britain is fighting a very secr

Northern Ireland, the British army used to say, was a corporal's war. The leader of a foot patrol of between just four and five soldiers in West Belfast, and his decisions over life and death, could influence the whole pace of events. He was the "strategic soldier". Iraq, by contrast, is a colonel's war. The country is divided into a series of military fiefdoms where a battalion commander has almost free rein to decide the tactics that his several hundred soldiers employ, whether handing out sweets or calling down air strikes.

The war in Maysan, a lawless province just north of Basra, belongs to Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Maer, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, otherwise known as "The Tigers". When I met Maer last month at his Abu Naji base in Amarah, he was keen to stress that there was nothing too serious going on in his province, which, he pointed out, was about the size of Ulster. "Reading some media reports, anyone would think we are in some kind of war zone out here!" he scoffed. Flanked by two press officers, Maer was breezing utter normality. It was all "rather dull", he said.

So why was our interview interrupted by a mobile phone call from the US chief in the city, whose compound had been under siege from mortars for days? Why were some soldiers leaving the Abu Naji base with bullets already loaded in their rifles? Why had soldiers abandoned their air-conditioned tents to sleep in sandbagged shipping containers, where the mosquitoes can attack all night? Why did Maer's office have a large board with the initials MA (Mahdi army) and "lethal force" written about three times?

As we stepped outside, I was informed that a trip to visit the occupying forces' headquarters in the city had just been cancelled. Due to three separate gun attacks on foreigners that day, all movements were suspended. We could not leave the camp at all and, although I could stay the night, we would be driven back to Basra at first light. One day later, a major conflict erupted. The army raided the Mahdi offices and captured large quantities of ammunition. But the Mahdi militiamen retaliated and laid siege to the coalition civilian compound in the town. A British patrol became isolated; injured soldiers had to be rescued under fire. Then the Mahdi ambushed a US convoy, killing two soldiers. The British braved the gunfire to rescue many of the injured.

You will not previously have read about any of this because the British are, in effect, involved in a secret war in southern Iraq. It is nothing like as widespread as that involving Americans in the north: no British soldiers have been killed in action this year. But, in pockets, it has been both bloody and intense and it has involved some British soldiers in conspicuous acts of gallantry.

The British don't want any of this reported. The impression is of orders from "on high", maybe even from Downing Street, that this kind of fighting is not really happening.

The British army has deployed weaponry that it hardly expected to use in its peacekeeping operation: 37-tonne Warrior armoured vehicles; the army's most formidable weapon, the Challenger tank; even, according to some soldiers, a US Spectre gunship in the streets of Amarah. Maer's men have bravely held the besieged civilian compound and rescued soldiers under fire, sustaining multiple injuries. But a written request to interview these men received no response.

Also involved has been B Company, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. A fortnight ago, two unarmoured Land-Rovers were ambushed three times as they passed through Majar al-Kabir, just south of Amarah, and finally pinned down. Warrior armoured vehicles and tanks set off to the rescue. From another location, so did another force of Highlanders, but they were also pinned down by machine-guns and mortars.

Unable to wait, the Highlanders decided to counter-attack. One platoon laid down suppressing fire while another crept around the side and assaulted the Mahdi trenches with grenades and bayonets. It was probably the first time that the regiment had fixed bayonets in anger since Borneo in the 1960s. After hours of fighting, at least 20 Mahdi militiamen lay dead. Again, requests to interview the soldiers involved were ignored.

What is the reason for the British army's being so unusually publicity-shy? Commanding officers have said the media are prone to "sensationalise", have pointed to the danger of creating worries among families back home, and also warned that the reporting of these battles would stir up further tension - this last a particularly odd idea, when local citizens are well aware of their own casualties.

Many soldiers of lower rank have different views. Some officers reported that Brigadier Nick Carter, the commanding officer of British forces in Basra until last month, was "carpeted" by his superiors for being too frank. He remarked last month that it was "cloud-cuckoo-land" to imagine that Iraq's new police could soon take over security, confirming what most here know: that it will take months if not years for stability to be restored, even in the relatively peaceful but lawless south.

One officer in the Cheshire Regiment, which controls security in Basra, said the whole army was now under strong political orders to minimise reports of trouble and to encourage good news. "There is some great work going on here, and we wish the media would report this more," he said. "But there is a danger we are being set up for a fall. Despite the real improvements we are making, we cannot change this place overnight or pretend that everything is safe or secure. Yet there is intense pressure, from Downing Street and Whitehall all the way down, to portray only a rosy view of life. You should know that the view among soldiers here is that we're not really getting the kind of political support from back home that we deserve."