LONDON, Feb. 22 -- Prince Harry is going to war.
Sometime this year, the younger son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana will be deployed to Iraq as the first royal family soldier to serve in a war zone in 25 years. Now known officially as Cornet Wales, a rank equivalent to second lieutenant, the ruby-cheeked prince will serve in Iraq for six months commanding a squadron of 12 men in four Scimitar armored reconnaissance vehicles.
Speculation about whether Harry, 22, would see combat had been percolating since he entered Sandhurst military academy in May 2005 but was put to rest Thursday in a statement from Defense Secretary Des Browne. Harry's elite Blues and Royals regiment is part of a restructuring plan announced Wednesday by Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which British forces in Iraq will be reduced from 7,100 troops to 5,500 in the coming months.
Britain has been divided about whether Harry, third in line to the throne behind his father and his brother, Prince William, should be sent into combat. Some have seen it as a needless risk and argued that a royal might be a prized target for insurgents, potentially putting his fellow soldiers at greater risk. Others have noted that the royal family has a long history of military service and that potential world leaders could do worse than testing their mettle by serving their nation under fire.
"He's obviously a very gutsy kid, and I'm sure he's insisted on going," said William Shawcross, a noted author and broadcaster who has written a biography of Harry's great-grandmother Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother. "I expect his father is very worried about it, but it's a good thing. I think the queen will be proud of him."
Florence Grayson, a student walking along a sidewalk in west London, said Harry ought to stay on safer shores.
"I don't think he should go," she said. "It would be a huge trauma to William and to the country if he dies. We need our two kings."
For his part, Harry is on record demanding not to be treated like some china doll prince. He has reportedly threatened to quit the army if not allowed to eat Iraqi dust alongside his mates.
"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," Harry said in a rare, often-quoted and charmingly off-color interview marking his 21st birthday in 2005. "That may sound very patriotic, but it's true."
In that interview, the free-spirited son of one of the world's most famous and beloved women said he envisioned a long military career: "I do enjoy running down a ditch full of mud, firing bullets. It's the way I am. I love it."
Officials at Clarence House, Prince Charles's office, declined to release details of exactly where and how Harry would serve in Iraq because it would be "potentially dangerous." They said it was Harry's "express wish" to "undertake a normal tour of duty" in a country where more than 130 British soldiers have been killed. Like the United States, Britain has a volunteer army.
The BBC quoted a source in the Blues and Royals saying that Harry was "over the moon" with delight about his deployment.
Prince Henry Charles Albert David, Harry for short, was introduced to the world in September 1984 as a newborn in his mother's arms, jokingly referred to as the junior half of the "heir and a spare" after William's birth in June 1982.
The next iconic image of Harry was that of a little red-haired boy in a suit and tie, nine days shy of his 13th birthday, walking behind his mother's funeral cortege in September 1997 as hundreds of millions of people watched live on television. Although Britain's tabloid newspapers generally regard the royal family as juicy red meat, William and Harry have received relatively gentle coverage growing up in the global spotlight following Diana's death.
The princes are in the public eye most often over speculation about their love lives. William's girlfriend, Kate Middleton, has emerged as a potential bride of the future king. Harry is frequently seen with Chelsy Davy, a Zimbabwe-born heiress who lives in South Africa. While William and Kate maintain a relatively reserved public profile, Harry and Chelsy tend to be a bit wilder.
Both princes are continuing the royal family's long military tradition. William, 24, graduated from Sandhurst in December and is training to become a troop commander in the Blues and Royals as well. It is unclear whether William will be -- or wants to be -- assigned to combat duty.
The Blues and Royals unit is part of the Royal Household Cavalry, the army's oldest regiment, which traces its roots to 1652. It has taken part in all Britain's major operations in recent decades, including the Falklands War, both Persian Gulf wars, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The last royal to see combat was Harry's uncle Prince Andrew, who served as a helicopter pilot in the Falklands. Prince Charles spent five years in the Royal Navy in the 1970s, qualifying as a helicopter pilot but never seeing combat action. Harry's grandfather Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II, fought in World War II. Harry's great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers were also military commanders.
On the London streets, several people interviewed supported sending Harry to war.
"He should not get any special treatment because he is a royal," said Susan Gibson, 46. "If you do sign up, it's part of your job. Nobody will know who he is anyways. Well, he has red hair. But he'll wear gear, right?"
Fernando Moya, 31, a filmmaker drinking coffee in a cafe, called it "not a typical thing for a royal to do."
He said he was sure the British military would take special steps to keep Harry safe.
"He's not going to be treated like a normal soldier, and it will probably cost a lot of money to keep him safe," Moya said. "But at least he's going. It shows his boldness, and he is being brave."