LONDON – He's a freckle-faced royal rascal who has led a life of privilege. But Britain's Prince Harry is also an army officer — and he could soon be heading to Iraq to face the reality of combat.
No matter that royal officials have said no decision about a deployment has been made, or that the Ministry of Defense has dismissed such reports as "entirely speculative." Newspapers are filling their pages about the security headache that a war zone assignment for Harry — who is third in line to the throne — could bring for the British army.
"Harry's always wanted to be treated as an ordinary soldier," the Daily Mail quoted an unidentified army source as saying. "He's not an ordinary soldier, of course."
When Harry, 22, left Sandhurst Military Academy last year, he became a second lieutenant and joined the Blues and Royals regiment of the Household Cavalry. At the time, the defense ministry said he could possibly be deployed to Iraq, but that there might be situations when the presence of a member of the royal family could increase the risk for his comrades.
Harry himself was having none of it.
"There's no way I'm going to put myself through Sandhurst, and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country," he said in a television interview to mark his 21st birthday.
"It's entirely understandable that he should want to go," said William Wallace, a professor emeritus of international relations at the London School of Economics and a British defense expert. "There's not much point of being in the army unless you experience the same things as your men."
Harry went to the elite all-boys school, Eton, and has been described as "one of the lads" by celebrity gossip magazine Hello! Harry is considered more impetuous than his elder brother Prince William; he has often been seen leaving posh London nightclubs — and once scuffled with a photographer.
Harry has also acknowledged drinking underage and smoking marijuana, and in January 2006, he apologized after being pictured in a national newspaper at a costume party dressed as a Nazi, including a swastika armband.
But he's also been photographed working with AIDS orphans in Africa during a year spent abroad. And while Harry has been pictured with a beer or a cigarette in his hand, stories about his possible deployment to Iraq were accompanied by more dignified shots of the prince in battle gear.
Harry and William — who graduated from Sandhurst late last year and is also with the Blues and Royals — join a long line of royals in the military. Their uncle, Prince Andrew, served in the Falklands war as a Royal Navy pilot; Prince Philip, their grandfather, had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy during World War II.
Even Queen Elizabeth II, their grandmother, served — she was trained as a driver in the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II.
Amyas Godfrey, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, said Harry could do a number of jobs in Iraq. As a junior officer, that might mean patrolling the streets of Basra, working inside the command headquarters, or training Iraqi police officers.
"It would be untrue to say he will be like everyone else — and he'll want to be like everyone else — but he won't be able to because he is Prince Harry," said Godfrey, a former Army officer who has served in Iraq. Godfrey said that one of the biggest obstacles to the prince serving in the field is his recognizability, which could make him vulnerable to attack.
The Ministry of Defense said William technically could be deployed to Iraq. However, it was highly unlikely that the second in line to the throne would be placed in harm's way.
The publicity surrounding Harry's possible deployment in April could affect whether he is sent to Iraq, where Britain has about 7,500 troops, based mostly in Basra, 40 miles southeast of Baghdad. More than 100 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003.
"I think the military will be very wary about getting it right — getting it right in the public eye," he said. "If he doesn't go, (the public) will say, bad decision, because they're treating him with kid gloves.
"If he does go and gets hurt, then it'll be a bad decision," Godfrey said. "The fact that it's in the public eye makes it a difficult decision."