BASRA, Iraq – Wearing desert camouflage and boots, Prince Charles (search) made a surprise morale-boosting visit to British troops in Iraq on Sunday, the first member of the royal family to visit the country since the ouster of Saddam Hussein (search).
At a former Saddam palace in the city of Basra, the prince mingled with about 200 soldiers, shaking hands, sipping tea and praising them for their role in keeping security in southern Iraq.
"What you're doing, many of you, training Iraqis to become almost as good a bunch of soldiers as you are, is ... of enormous importance because this part of the world doesn't have much chance unless their armed force can learn a lot from your experience ... not only in the military but in the hearts and minds," the prince said, according to the British news agency, Press Association.
Security was tight for the prince's 5-hour visit. His staff only allowed journalists to report that he'd been to Iraq after he had left for Iran — the first member of a British royal family to visit that country in 33 years.
Southern Iraq, the Shiite-dominated region where British troops are based, has not had the anti-coalition guerrilla violence that has plagued Baghdad and mainly-Sunni central Iraq. But Basra and other southern towns have seen killings and violence blamed on local rivalries and revenge attacks on former Saddam backers.
There are some 8,000 British troops stationed in Iraq. Britain was the United States' main ally in the Iraq conflict, deploying around 46,000 soldiers for the war, and has lost 58 troops since the start of hostilities.
Charles met L. Paul Bremer (search), the top American official in Iraq, and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the top Briton, during the visit.
"We don't normally take the prince to places as dangerous as this," said a spokesman for Queen Elizabeth II's eldest son. "The troops need cheering up. Hopefully, this will make a difference."
Prime Minister Tony Blair has twice visited Iraq to meet British troops. His last trip was in early January.
Charles arrived from Kuwait at Basra's airport in a C-130 Hercules aircraft. Wearing desert camouflage, boots and a flak jacket, he rode a Chinook helicopter across the city to the Al-Sarraji Palace. The palace, built in the 1980s for Saddam, now serves as the headquarters of the British 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.
Shortly before Charles touched down, the sound of gunfire was heard over the city. There was no explanation, but Iraqis often celebrate weddings, parties, births and other events by shooting weapons.
Inside the palace, Charles met servicemen and women on a terrace.
"He asked about the situation here. It's improved a hell of a lot since we arrived, and it's improving all the time," said Color Sergeant James Wilson, 35, after meeting the prince. "It's an honor to have him come and find time to speak to the boys."
Charles also met local Iraqi leaders, including Shiite clerics and Sunni representatives.
He arrived in Iran late Sunday, and planned to meet President Mohammad Khatami on Monday morning before flying to Bam, the ancient city in southeastern Iran that was devastated by a massive earthquake Dec. 26.
"The prince is a patron of the British Red Cross and is visiting Iran in that role. It's an official but completely a nonpolitical visit," said Andrew Dunn, first secretary at the British Embassy in Tehran.
The prince, accompanied by a small entourage that includes the head of the British Red Cross, will meet with earthquake victims and assess how England can help the survivors and try to restore agricultural life.
The last time a British royal family member visited Iran was in 1971 when Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne attended grand celebrations marking 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran.