THE Royal Regiment of Wales is facing its biggest challenge to date.

The regiment, which is currently on a gruelling exercise in the prairies of Alberta, Canada, has been earmarked to carry out peacekeeping duties in Iraq as part of Operation Telic.

The regiment has been in the thick of the action in the last few years with tours to Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia, plus covering for striking firefighters.

But Iraq will be the toughest test yet. Since the end to the war was declared, about 50 US soldiers have died trying to maintain peace.

And the death of six Royal Military Police last month at the hands of a baying mob in a village near Amara around 100 miles north of Basra brought home the dangers that remain for British troops despite the fall of Saddam's regime.

The Monmouth born-and-bred Commanding Officer of the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Napier, is aware of the pitfalls his men may face in Iraq.

He said: "I would suggest there are risks and dangers associated with any operation, but what I want is to go to Iraq with 680 men and come back with 680 men and that is a heavy burden at times.

"But we are well-trained, and I have no doubt that, in the main, it will be a success.

"And if we can help the people of Iraq in some small way it will be a great privilege."

Lieutenant Colonel Napier's staunch belief that his soldiers will be in optimum condition for deployment to Iraq this November is hard to dispute after witnessing the intensity of their training in the hostile and vast prairies of Alberta.

The 33-day 'Medicine Man' exercise, which is now reaching its conclusion, will have stretched every single person in the regiment to the limit of their physical and mental capabilities.

One sergeant major claimed it was the most demanding exercise any soldier in the world, outside of special forces, is likely to endure in their career.

Ideal preparation for a tour of one of the most volatile countries in the world, you may think. But if the thought of going to Iraq is resting heavily in the minds of the regiment's young soldiers, they are hiding it well.

Although Private Chris Read, from the Corporation Road area of Newport, is relatively inexperienced having joined the regiment just six months ago, he is relishing the challenge.

"In a way I can't wait, it's something you have got to do," said the 18-year-old from B company.

"It is hard for my mum because she doesn't want me to go, but being in the army is something I have always wanted to do and I think she understands.

"My best mates are in the army because they're your real mates.

"You also get to do a lot of travelling. This is the first major exercise I have done and I think it will be ideal preparation for when we go out to the Gulf."

Private John Pritchard is leaving the army after five years to join Gwent police this summer, and he will be harbouring some regret he is not with the regiment in Iraq come November.

The 22-year-old from Markham said: "I'm not leaving because I was no longer enjoying it - I just fancied doing something different. If it didn't work out I would come back if it meant going to Iraq - it's why you sign."

Recently promoted Lance Corporal Ant-hony Lock, from A company, shares the same pragmatic view.

The 21-year-old from The Gaer said: "At the end of the day, it is what we have trained for and what we joined for the army for. So I am looking forward to it."

One person who is not relishing breaking the news to his family about the operation in Iraq is 21-year-old Private Michael Hill, from Ringland.

His mother has only just begun to relax after her other son; 19-year-old Richard, returned from Basra where he was serving as a rifleman in the recent Gulf War with 42 Commando of the Royal Marines.

"She will be a nervous wreck when I tell her," he said. "I'm normally there for her when she is worrying about Richard."

Private Hill says he is looking forward to catching up with his brother in the pubs and clubs of Newport.

He said: "Richard was involved in the war from the start and it went all right for him. He saw quite a few things while he was out there, but he is OK.

"I haven't spoken to him properly for a long time because as soon as he came home I was flown out here. I'm planning to catch up with him when I go home over a pints down our local, The Friendship."