Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, an Irish-American commanding the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, took time out from overseeing the buildup to spend an hour with the British unit.
The shamrock ceremony is a tradition for the Irish Guards, one of the red-coated regiments that are known to millions of tourists who visit Buckingham Palace every year.
A member of the royal family — most often the Queen Mother Elizabeth, before her death last year — presents the troops with shamrocks to adorn their hats on St. Patrick's Day. The ceremony is customarily followed by liberal amounts of Guinness and whiskey.
"It's always a big morale boost for the boys, no matter where they are, in the jungle or desert," said Color Sgt. Tommy Cassidy, 37, of Belfast. "Usually, there's some liquid refreshment, but not this year, owing to future operations."
No royal family member was on hand to present the shamrocks to the Guards, so Conway was asked to fill in.
Smiling broadly and wishing the troops luck, Conway handed out clumps of shamrocks, which were flown in to the desert Friday by the Royal Air Force, then kept in iced tubs to keep them from wilting.
The Irish Guards rewarded Conway with a march-past straight out of Buckingham Palace. The parade ground was made of sand whipped up at times by helicopters flying overhead, but the choppers failed to drown out the skirl of bagpipes.
Instead of ceremonial uniforms, the guards were clad in desert camouflage — except one company that arrived from Germany just days ago. Their forest-green uniforms were more appropriate for the occasion, but they were expecting to get desert clothing in a few hours.
Written By PATRICK McDOWELL