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Unease, praise for war-bound prince

The British public has mixed feelings about Harry's deployment to Iraq. The military fears an invasion by tabloids.

February 23, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — To the troops he commands, he will be 2nd Lt. Wales -- as in, son of the Prince of.

A mixture of approval and national unease greeted confirmation from the Defense Ministry on Thursday that the nation's beloved Prince Harry is headed for Iraq.

Publicly, there was appreciation for the 22-year-old prince's determination to serve with his mates in the Household Cavalry Regiment, bound for a six-month deployment in southern Iraq this spring.

Privately, there was the dreadful image of the third in line to the British throne possibly staring out of an Islamic militant kidnap video.

"The decision to deploy him has been a military one, made by the chief of the General Staff, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, in conjunction with Cornet Wales' commanding officer," the ministry said in a statement, using the British cavalry title "cornet" for second lieutenant. "The Royal Household has been consulted throughout."

British royalty has a long history of service in the armed forces. Queen Elizabeth II was a uniformed driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II, along with her sister, Princess Margaret. Harry's father, Charles, the Prince of Wales, earned his wings with the Royal Air Force in 1971, and his grandfather the Duke of Edinburgh served on the battleship Valiant during wartime in 1941.

The most recent royal to see action was Prince Andrew, Harry's uncle, who flew a Sea King helicopter as a decoy target accompanying British ships during the 1982 Falklands War.

But Iraq is a different thing altogether, especially at a time when this nation that has grave misgivings about its troops' deployment decided this week to begin drawing down more than one-fifth of its 7,100 military personnel there.

"1,600 out ... One in," the Sun newspaper said.

Prince Harry, the younger son of the heir to the throne and the late Princess Diana, has a special place among the royal family for the British public, who remember his bowed, freckled face as he walked solemnly behind his mother's coffin.

More recently, the tabloids have been full of his antics at London nightclubs.

Now, fresh from a 44-week training course at the elite Sandhurst Military Academy, followed by a four-month technical training course in Dorset, the prince is commanding a 12-member armored reconnaissance troop in the Blues and Royals regiment scheduled to deploy as early as April.

"If they said no, you can't go in the front line, then I wouldn't drag my sorry arse to Sandhurst and I wouldn't be where I am now, because the last thing I want to do is to have [my unit] sent away to Iraq or anywhere like that, and for me to be held back home twiddling my thumbs," Harry said on his 21st birthday in 2005.

British officials said the prince's troop would operate in four armored reconnaissance vehicles, each with a crew of three. Military analysts said the group would probably be deployed away from the most dangerous areas of urban Basra, the southern city where British troops are based.

"He'll be deployed in areas where he'll be pretty safe. I mean, he'll be sharing the risk that they all have to accept when they go to that area, but the fact is ... he'll be in an armored vehicle, and he's going to be moving fast. He's not going to be on foot patrol," said Michael Clarke, a defense studies professor at King's College in London.

"It would be pretty hard for anybody to locate a single individual soldier and really track them," Clarke said. "And I think it's fair to say that the defense establishment in London is more worried about the journalists than the insurgents."

Images of paparazzi helicopters swooping over the Iraqi desert in search of His Royal Highness are already causing nightmares at army headquarters.

To head off a media invasion, the Defense Ministry and the royal family put out a statement appealing for cooperation.

"Any targeting of Prince Harry in Iraq by the media would pose a real and very serious risk to the lives of soldiers and civilians," the statement said. It asked media outlets not to publish details of the prince's specific assignments and not to deploy reporters and photographers to the battlefront without military authorization.

A clue to what might lie ahead came in front of the main government offices at Whitehall on Thursday, when former boxing champion Chris Eubank was arrested after reportedly driving his truck up and down the street with a banner addressed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"Blair," it said, "don't send our young prince to your catastrophic illegal war to make it look plausible."

The prime minister congratulated the prince.

"He's a very brave young man, and he's a very determined young man who wants to be part of his regiment and part of the army," Blair told the British Broadcasting Corp. "And I think that shows a very special character on his part."

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