ALDERSHOT soldiers could be in Iraq longer than was first anticipated, with the war taking months rather than weeks.

The coalition claims that it has made good progress against Saddam Hussein’s regime, but critics say that it has not been as quick as was first predicted.

They maintain that the resistance shown by Iraqi forces has taken coalition troops by surprise and the talk of the war being over in weeks was premature.

This will be a bitter pill to swallow for the families and supporters of Aldershot-based troops, who thought they would be reunited with their loved ones sooner rather than later.

And it means Aldershot soldiers who remain behind in the garrison could yet see action in Iraq.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has hinted that a long conflict in Iraq would lead to UK forces in the region being replaced.

Mr Hoon has said once the conflict moves into a different phase, the 45,000-strong deployment in the region would be reviewed. This could see Aldershot troops being sent either as reinforcements or to replace colleagues who have been there since the start.

This week it was revealed that British soldiers in Iraq are being faced with the heartbreaking task of burning letters sent to them by loved ones.

As they battle against the danger posed by the Iraqi forces, the troops keep their spirits up by waiting for correspondence from back home.

However, Martin Dillon, a Manchester Evening News reporter who is travelling with Aldershot’s 7 (Para) Royal Horse Artillery, has revealed that troops have to destroy letters after they have read them in case they are taken prisoner and the personal details are used against them.

In his war diary, which is being featured in the News and Mail, Martin described the atmosphere among the servicemen and women when the letters from home arrive.

He writes: “When mail arrives there is a sense of elation among the 7 RHA but this is tinged with sadness as they realise the precious messages and photos from home must be incinerated.

“During this operation the only details carried by the troops are army identification card, ID disks, a medical card and dollars.

“It is obviously upsetting but all the men accept it as part of being a soldier in a war zone. This is the reality of warfare — men stripped of their private lives and day-to-day comfort.

“But the mail also brings parcels of food, sweets, chocolates and toiletries which again cheer up the soldiers, especially as it makes a change from army rations.

Sgt Ewan Andrews, 30, of Aldershot, received some photographs of his ten-month old son Sam, which he had to destroy when moving gun positions. He said: “I am absolutely gutted but it is an army rule and you just have to do it.”

In his war diary, Martin also reveals how troops have spoken of the “death letters” they are asked to write that are passed on to loved ones if they are killed in action.

“I was speaking to a couple of the lads about death letters,” Martin writes. “For those who don’t know, soldiers are given the option of writing to their loved ones before they leave on a war operation. In the event of their death the letter is given to their loved ones.

“I wondered what it would be like to write one of these letters and what I would say. One lad I spoke to said he was nearly in tears as he contemplated writing this letter to his children.

“He then decided it would be a negative thing to do as he had every intention of returning home safely.”

Soldiers with 7 RHA have been moving from the Rumallah oilfields in southern Iraq, joining the push towards Baghdad. All three batteries have been in action launching rockets against Iraqi position.