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Iraq: 'Operation Toilet Roll' -- Britain's Media Highlight Troops' Supply Shortages

Over the past weeks and months, thousands of British troops have gone to the Persian Gulf to join U.S. forces awaiting a possible war against Iraq. But British government officials have had to face some hostile action of their own at home. That's come in the form of a barrage of complaints that troops are so badly equipped they have had to buy some of their own supplies -- or borrow from American troops.

Prague, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When Liz MacFarlane's soldier son was about to be sent to the Persian Gulf, he ran into a problem -- the British Army had run out of pants and boots in his size.

So he wrote home and got his mother and father to buy some at their local store in the Scottish highlands. One newspaper ran the story under the headline, "Dear Mum, Please Send More Combat Trousers."

"Thousands of soldiers are doing it. There's another lady in the village [and] yesterday she was away buying a camouflage shirt and trousers and [so on] for her husband. He [my son] is not a one-off," Liz MacFarlane said.

More serious stories have appeared in many British newspapers recently, based on letters and e-mails from disgruntled troops and their families. British soldiers are underequipped and underfed, they say. Their boots are melting in the heat. Gas masks are out of date. They're having to borrow from the better-equipped, better-fed, and more regularly showered Americans.

One thing not in short supply is nicknames. The Brits have been dubbed "The Flintstones" -- after a popular television cartoon set in the Stone Age. Or "The Begging Brigade." Or "The Borrowers." That one came courtesy of the opposition Liberal Democrats, after one of their top politicians visited British troops in Kuwait in January.

Colin Breed is a Liberal Democrat defense spokesman whose constituency includes the Royal Navy's Devonport Dockyard: "One of the most interesting and poignant letters I've received is from a father who actually worked in the logistics department of the [Defense Ministry] at Devonport Dockyard whose son is out in Kuwait. And they had received letters and texts and phone calls [from the son] indicating the paucity of some of the supplies. And, of course, his own father was at the other end of the line."

Armed Forces Minister (a junior defense minister) Adam Ingram admitted recently that there have been "glitches," but said this is understandable given such a complex operation. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said soldiers in the Persian Gulf have assured him they are entirely happy. And others have dismissed the "underfed" claims, saying the British have the same food as the Americans.

The military's top officials have hit back, too. General Mike Jackson, chief of staff of the British armed forces, said last week, "If anything, I'm a little concerned it may be too comfortable."

Unnamed senior military officers told "The Guardian" this week that the soldiers' idea of operations is what they experienced as peacekeepers in the Balkans. "They expect hot showers, the Internet and televisions," one said. "That's fine for peacekeeping support, but this is expeditionary war fighting."

But the comments haven't stopped the British media from having fun with the story. The "Daily Mail" offered to pay anyone sending in tales of woe. "The Sun" tabloid shipped out thousands of rolls of toilet paper in a stunt dubbed "Operation Loo Roll" -- complete with puns on this "rear-guard action."

MacFarlane, though, is keen to point out that the story of her son's temporary trousers problem was intended to be "lighthearted" and that she did not mean any criticism of the British Army or the government: "It got thrown out of context. [British television] would not let go. They wanted to twist it. They said, 'What do you think about buying his trousers?' I said, 'I've been buying them all his bloody life since he was a baby. It's nothing new to me.' But then they fired in a question regarding the government and the army. They twisted it [by asking], 'Did I not think it was a disgrace after paying taxes?' [But] I wasn't out to slag anybody."

The Liberal Democrats' Breed also acknowledges that much of the problem lies in the huge task of transporting everything needed for thousands of troops in such a short amount of time. He says the situation has improved: "The time scales being imposed on the [Defense Ministry] to get the logistical support for 45,000 troops just stretched not only the stores -- because the stores required just weren't there and new orders had to be made -- but also the transport and everything else. I think it was just straining every part of the logistical effort. Now that has improved."

Alex Nicoll is senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He says the British Defense Ministry has been working to remedy equipment problems since a massive military exercise in Oman two years ago revealed shortcomings -- including the now famous "melting boots." Tanks have been modified to better cope with desert conditions, and rifles that jammed in the desert heat have been refurbished.

But he says the ministry still has ongoing problems with how it chooses and buys equipment. And he says the fuss is not altogether unjustified: "When the [Defense Ministry] cocks things up like this, it deserves what it gets, really. Sometimes it is blown out of proportion, but it is an issue, definitely."