A boy who just wanted to come home

A pebble-dashed semi-detached house on a council estate in the middle of Fife is a long, long way from Iraq's desert sands. But it is exactly where 19-year-old Paul Lowe longed to be.

After a six-month tour of duty with the Black Watch regiment, he was due to return home tomorrow. Now, his body lies waiting to be flown back in a flag-draped coffin - a casualty of a war that he believed should never have involved British troops.

Private Lowe was one of three Black Watch soldiers killed in action when a suicide bomber attacked their checkpoint in the so-called Triangle of Death close to Baghdad - bringing the number of British troops killed in the conflict to 73.

The teenager died on Thursday alongside Sergeant Stuart Gray, 31, and Private Scott McArdle, 22, both from Fife. Their deaths have galvanised critics of the Iraq war and the Prime Minister is facing renewed demands for the withdrawal of British troops, sent north from the British-controlled area around Basra to help the US push into Fallujah.

The Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, calling for the troops to be withdrawn, said: "The bravery of those soldiers in Iraq contrasts sharply with the chicanery of the politicians who sent them there in the first place.''

At Camp Dogwood, where the 850 Black Watch soldiers are based, the Saltire flew at half mast, and the mood was sombre.

But the men's colleagues, while stunned, were back on duty, resuming their duties in the perilous area along the banks of the Euphrates. They did so the British way - shunning the hardline, suspicious American approach - mixing with the locals while wearing their distinctive Tam O'Shanter headgear.

Private Lowe was a keen volunteer who loved army life. But days before he died, his family said, he told his mother, Helen, that he had had enough of Iraq and wanted to come home. He joined the regiment straight from Beath High School in Cowdenbeath, aged 16, to become a drummer in the pipe band and play at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. He was already a combat veteran when he was sent to Iraq with the regiment six months ago, having served a previous tour during the war.

Although a keen footballer, his greatest ambition since the age of eight had always been to join the Army. Like many other young men from Perthshire, Angus and Fife, he saw it as a career, providing excitement and financial security.

In an area of Scotland plagued by high levels of unemployment, the lure of the armed forces, and the Black Watch in particular, has long been an escape route from what could otherwise be bleak futures.

For almost 300 years, the Black Watch - now threatened by proposed defence cuts - has recruited from the area, earning a reputation as a close-knit family regiment. And so it was for Private Lowe, who found himself serving alongside his brother Craig, 18, and 22-year-old cousin Barry.

Yesterday Craig - who was sent back to the UK last month to take part in a training course - criticised the Government for his brother's death. His stinging comments were echoed on the regiment's website.

Craig Lowe, speaking outside the family's home in Kelty, said: "We are all absolutely devastated - our mother is in floods of tears. We were all heartbroken yesterday and are all heartbroken today.'' Close to tears, he said: He thought they shouldn't be there. They should all just be back here because it's a war and nobody knows why it was started or what it was done for. He thought George Bush was an arsehole for starting a war over nothing, trying to get money and oil. That's what we all thought."

Paying tribute to the older "brilliant brother, comrade and friend", Craig said the whole family, including his younger brothers, Stuart, Shaun and Jordan, had been left in shock. They last spoke to him on Sunday when he phoned to say how much he was missing them and that he was looking forward to being home for Christmas.

He said: "I think the Government should get the rest of the boys out now, because if not we are going to lose a lot more than this. There are going to be a lot more upset people.''

A few miles across Fife, in Glenrothes, there were similar scenes of heartbreak and anger at the terraced home of Private Scott McArdle, a rifleman in the regiment's elite reconnaissance platoon. He was due to become a father for the first time in January.

Private McArdle had left the regiment before, but found it difficult to get work. Because of his family commitments, he rejoined, and was sent back to Iraq.

His uncle, Martin McArdle, said: "Scott was a nice, ordinary, fun-loving boy who liked his football and a couple of pints. He was going to get married when he got back from Iraq and his girlfriend is due to give birth to a daughter in the new year ... He saw the Army as offering a career and financial security for his family and the future."

Mr McArdle, 36, said he feared Iraq would turn into another Vietnam. He criticised Tony Blair and George Bush for sending troops into a "death trap".

Mr McArdle said: "Scott and his mates were prepared to defend their country but not to go and fight other countries' wars. There's a big difference between that and what they're doing at the moment.'

For the family of the third victim of Thursday's ambush - Sergeant Stuart Gray - there was immense sadness.

Mary Gray, his mother, hailed her son as "an experienced and professional soldier, a loving husband, father, son and brother, and a proud member of the Black Watch". Although she was "deeply shocked" by his death, she said that her sadness was tinged with pride.

Sgt Gray, who was educated at Pitcorthie Primary School and Woodmill High School in Dunfermline, had served for 12 years in the Army. He leaves a wife, Wendy, and children, Kirstin, 12, and Darren, 10.

Kirstin wept uncontrollably yesterday as she laid 10 red roses outside the gates of the current regimental barracks in Warminster, Wiltshire. With them was the message: "To Dad. Love you and miss you, love Kirstin."

Dozens of other mourners and well-wishers stopped at the spot outside St Giles Church to leave flowers, thistles, and even a Glasgow Rangers Football Club scarf.

There was anger in Perth that the tragedy was announced by Adam Ingram, Armed Forces minister, instead of Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary.

Anne McMillan, a local campaigner fighting to save the Black Watch regiment from cuts, summed up the mood, saying: "I wonder why Hoon, the gutless wonder, didn't stand up and deliver the bad news himself.

"I have never known so much anger among the families. We might have been told to keep quiet but too many people are furious that the regiment was sent into this dangerous area when they were due to come home. Blair, Hoon and the rest of them should be worried. I don't think they will be getting many votes here."

Back at Camp Dogwood, 25 miles south-west of Baghdad, there was a grim determination to stick to the task.

One soldier said: "Everyone is sick, but we know it goes with the job. It could have happened to anyone here. They were all good guys. Even though there are a lot of people here, everyone knows each other, and we all knew them. But we've just got to go out and get on with the job."

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