BASRA, Iraq -- Wearing desert camouflage and boots, Prince Charles made a surprise morale-boosting visit to British troops in Iraq yesterday, the first member of the royal family to visit the country since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
At a former presidential 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 1/2-hour visit. His staff allowed journalists to report that he'd been to Iraq only after he had left for Iran -- the first British royal visit to that country in 33 years.
Southern Iraq, the Shi'ite-dominated region where British troops are based, has not had the anticoalition guerrilla violence that has plagued Baghdad and mainly-Sunni central Iraq. But Basra and other southern towns have seen killings and violence attributed to local rivalries and revenge attacks on former Hussein 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.
The prince met with L. Paul Bremer III, 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.
The prince 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 Al-Sarraji Palace. The palace, built in the 1980s for Hussein, now serves as the headquarters of the British Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.
Shortly before the prince's aircraft touched down, the sound of gunfire was heard over the city. There was no explanation, but Iraqis often celebrate weddings and other events by shooting into the air.
Inside the palace, the prince met with soldiers 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.
The prince also met with Iraqi leaders, including Shi'ite clerics and Sunni representatives. He arrived in Iran late yesterday, and planned to meet with President Mohammad Khatami this morning before flying to Bam, the ancient city in southeastern Iran that was devastated by a massive earthquake Dec. 26.