A New Zealander left for dead in the freezing Iraqi desert while serving with a crack SAS troop is still fighting - this time, finds CARROLL DU CHATEAU, for the right to tell his side of a suppressed story



The story of Corporal Mike Coburn - or "Mark the Kiwi" -a member of the famous Bravo Two Zero patrol dropped behind enemy lines during the Gulf War, has all the elements needed for a brilliant war yarn.



Coburn, now in his late 30s, worked under callous commanders in a career spent operating under false names (to this day his real identity is under wraps), showed courage under fire and endured almost unendurable hardship, cold and torture. Throw in a 100km car chase, a stray goat herd and "slotting" (SAS slang for killing) hundreds of Iraqis.



But trying to tell his story of a botched SAS raid during the Gulf War has put Coburn on the wrong side of his old bosses - and the law.

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Even now it is impossible to tell Coburn's story directly. Instead it must be clipped together from books, articles and broadcasts already in the public domain.



What we know for sure is that the eight-man British mission was a shambles from the start.



On January 10, 1991, days before Allied planes began bombing Iraq, the squad was deployed to Saudi Arabia. A few days later, a RAF Chinook helicopter dropped them a good 15km from where it was supposed to, and basically on top of the proposed target - an Iraqi Army encampment - 300km south of the Saudi border and 120km north of Syria. There was no cover in the tablecloth-flat, freezing desert, nowhere to take up position.



Because the squad was sent out with the wrong radio frequencies, they could not communicate with their base. When they immediately ran into skirmishes with Iraqi soldiers, they did contrive to get a message to their leaders, but the SAS made a calculated decision not to get them out.



Said Coburn, back in Auckland during filming for an Assignment documentary in November 1998: "Without the shadow of a doubt, we were expendable."



The squad was headed by Andy McNab (also a pseudonym), who went on to write the best-selling book Bravo Two Zero (taken from the squad's radio call sign).



The soldiers started by following wadis - ancient river beds that twist through the desert - and shooting their way out of "contacts," fighting for their lives every kilometre.



The first night the patrol was split up. Three of Coburn's mates walked on ahead out of contact and were killed. The remaining five, under McNab's orders - and despite Coburn and the others' misgivings - made a run for the Syrian border. They hijacked a yellow taxi and headed north. When they ditched at a checkpoint around 10km from the border, the team was surrounded by thousands of Iraqi soldiers.

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Then, with the Syrian border - and freedom - in sight, after crawling through an 18-inch-deep drainage ditch, they came under fire from Iraqi gunners.



Coburn thought he was a gonner. As he said in an earlier interview, "The first round when it hit was like a huge wave of nausea went over me, I mean really intense ... It was like somebody taking a sledgehammer to my ankle. Another round went off through my arm and then the pain sort of came along and I started screaming. I was screaming my head off."



Next came boots in the head, punches, blindfolding, interrogation and intermittent beatings.



Because the Iraqis mistook Coburn's tanned complexion and circumcision as proof that he was Israeli, he was singled out for particular torture. For weeks, while he was held in solitary in a foul cell, he was tormented by interrogators who refused him medical treatment for the gaping wound in his foot and indeed prodded the wound to cause him further pain.



The real point of the book Soldier Five , which he has written but is still fighting a legal battle to publish, was not his story, he told a TVNZ reporter two years ago, but to get the record straight for his three comrades who died during the mission.



Unlike McNab, Coburn is bitter about his bosses' decision not to rescue the squad, which had managed to get a call out through Guardnet, an emergency frequency that communicated directly to the SAS base in Saudi Arabia. He felt he and the three who did not make it back had been betrayed by the very people whom they were bonded to trust their lives to.



Getting involved in counter-espionage was what young Mike Coburn had in mind from the time he was 18. He grew up in Te Atatu on the fringe of West Auckland, and despite the fresh air and rugby lacked the excitement he craved. He was bored at university, and after watching news broadcasts on the SAS siege of the Iranian Embassy in London he saw an ad for the SAS and decided to give it a go.



"I saw myself as somebody wanting to be an action man. When you're 18 or 19 years old you like your rugby and your sport. You're physical and you're aggressive and really it's a natural progression of that."



The SAS was the ultimate challenge - not just the New Zealand organisation, hard as it was to get into, but the crack British 22 Regiment. After earning selection, then qualifying in the New Zealand SAS squad, Coburn was hungry for some real action. He and a New Zealand mate headed for England.



Even in this company Coburn stood out as an independent, stroppy thinker and performer. He flew through the British SAS selection process and joined Andy McNab's squadron just before the Gulf War.



Coburn's first stint in action in the Gulf was a shattering experience - both physically and mentally. He underwent six months' rehabilitation, and then married Sue, an aerobics teacher from Hereford.



He also continued to work for the SAS, and spent time in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, mostly in intelligence work. He still works in security, commuting to the Middle East from the Auckland home he shares with his wife and three children.



But Coburn's troubles with the authorities started back in London, where he was working with MI5 when his SAS bosses tracked him down to sign a new confidentiality agreement. By then - late November 1996 - most serving and attached SAS soldiers had been obliged to sign the agreement. The only way out was to be sent back to their regiment - an ignominious fate for daring, blood-and-guts SAS soldiers. Coburn, along with most of his co-workers, signed.



Soon after, he resigned from the SAS, eventually leaving in 1997.



He told the British of frustration with an officer corps he described as "elitist."



He still fiercely defended the regiment. "Who are they going to turn to when they get something like the Prince's Gate [the siege of the Iranian Embassy]? Who are they going to call when the world is falling apart behind them, and they're screaming for someone to go up there and sort the situation out?" he told TVNZ.



Coburn then joined the "circuit" of security jobs that tend to be filled by former SAS soldiers - and wrote Soldier Five. But soon he felt like a hunted man.



By 1998, both he and his wife - who has read the manuscript for Soldier Five - faced an injunction against speaking out. Sue said she believed she was followed whenever she left home, even to go to the Post Office. In late 1998, the family decided to move back to New Zealand.



Now this quiet, soft-spoken and deeply principled man is preparing to take on the full might of the British Government.



At stake, he says, are the reputations of his three friends who perished in the desert. The way they have been depicted does not sit comfortably with the opinionated and scrupulously fair Kiwi.



Nor does the fact the squad was sent out behind Iraqi lines confident they would be rescued if they got into trouble.



He says, "They didn't lie to us, but we were misled."