Militants used grenade attacks to lure Black Watch into deadly trap

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The attack was carried out with deadly thoroughness, and took planning that illustrated the depth of the militants' information. The soldiers from the Black Watch had ventured on to the east bank of the Euphrates, outside their original area of operation. But somehow the insurgents knew they were coming, and were waiting.

The attack was carried out with deadly thoroughness, and took planning that illustrated the depth of the militants' information. The soldiers from the Black Watch had ventured on to the east bank of the Euphrates, outside their original area of operation. But somehow the insurgents knew they were coming, and were waiting.

In the early hours of the morning two Warrior armoured cars were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. But this appeared to have been purely intended to draw in other potential victims; the militants did not press home their attack.

The troops in the Warrior called for help and more soldiers arrived, setting up a vehicle checkpoint, on the northern road to Baghdad, and seemingly under the belief that the worst of it was over. The soldiers were now on foot, unprotected by armoured vehicles.

Then the final move was executed. A car packed with explosives drove up to the checkpoint. As one of the soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter leant inside the window, the car exploded. Three soldiers and the interpreter were killed. It had hardly been a secret in Baghdad and Fallujah that the insurgents had been carrying out detailed surveillance of the area where the British battle group was to deploy. This is after all a place where militants do traffic duty on roads guiding locals away from the places where they had planted bombs.

But yesterday's attack showed how flexible and adaptable the rebels are and does not augur well for the British forces in their new home. It would be hard to imagine many places that are bleaker, more miserable, and more dangerous than the Black Watch's new base at Camp Dogwood.

The featureless desert base is a wilderness of sand and mud. Mortar shells and rockets fired by insurgents arc daily into the rubble-strewn ground but seldom has the mood been grimmer than it was last night.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, who had flown in for consultations with senior officers, left abruptly in a flight of US Black Hawk helicopters, cancelling a scheduled press conference after learning of the deaths. Commanders ran in and out of meetings as the details of the ambush emerged.

As the sun was setting, two rockets whooshed overhead to land in the sandy mud of the base. Although they failed to explode they served as a reminder that, even inside Dogwood, British troops are at constant risk.

It started out as a busy and optimistic day for the 800-strong Black Watch battle group. After weeks of negotiations with the US Marines, who have overall control of this area, the regiment moved across the river Euphrates to expand its mission to rebel-dominated villages to the east.

Forty Black Watch soldiers accompanied a group of Royal Engineers who erected a metal reinforcement over a crumbling bridge across a tributary of the Euphrates. The bridge was intended to give armoured vehicles easier access to their new area of operation, and will be left behind after the Black Watch withdraws, for the benefit of local people. It was put together at feverish speed, as the tense infantrymen crouched along the river bank with their guns poised.

"This is an easy target ... so it's important that you get in and out quickly and disperse," said Captain Jono Kelmanson. Within 21 minutes of attaching the first bolts, the Engineers were finished.

They handed out flyers bearing Scottish flags, and a photograph of a smiling Black Watch officer and two young Iraqi children. "Please allow me to introduce myself," read the Arabic message on the reverse. "I am a Scottish soldier of the Black Watch regiment. We ask you to ignore those who would reject our presence. What have they ever done for you but take away your sons and bring sadness and despair to your area?"

The flyers bore the cross of St Andrew, but conspicuously lacked the Union flag. "When people see the Union Jack, they think of it as English, and we want to emphasise that we're Scottish," said one Black Watch officer.

But to local people the main source of danger was the British soldiers themselves. Black Watch officers found themselves facing a crowd of more than a hundred distraught and excited schoolchildren and a furious teacher from a nearby school whose way home was blocked by the soldiers. "The teacher is very angry because we're bringing danger to the children," said Captain Kelmanson. "By us being here, we attract the terrorists into the area.

"She's quite right, and if we knew it was a school we would have got the timing better."

After yesterday's attack it is clear that local anxieties have been dramatically vindicated.

British officers believe that they are facing sophisticated and well-organised insurgents who have been operating from the far side of the Euphrates, previously under the control of US Marines.

The Black Watch's original area of operation ended at the the Euphrates, and consisted largely of an unpopulated desert. The tracks running through the area are regarded as potential escape routes for resistance fighters fleeing a future US assault on Fallujah, which is expected to begin in the next fortnight. But radar has revealed that the rocket attacks are coming from the fertile, relatively populous belt of farms and villages across the river.

On Wednesday afternoon, US Marines handed over control of the east bank to the Black Watch.

"To control one side of the river is good," said Captain Steve Melbourne, a Royal Marines press officer with the Black Watch. "But the enemy can always go to the other side and shoot us."

A senior Black Watch officer described the new area of responsibility as being the Iraqi equivalent of "Berkshire or Surrey with guns" - a region inhabited by former loyalists of Saddam Hussein who became wealthy and powerful under Saddam's regime. "This is an area of bright, well-educated people," he said before news of yesterday's deaths. "They can lay on deliberate, well thought-out attacks.

"In the south around Basra, the insurgency is born of poverty and long-term exclusion. Up here, it's the loss of power and wealth. They had it all and they've lost it all ... It's quite a rich area - people come here who are not from these parts."

This pooled dispatch from Richard Lloyd Parry of The Times was compiled under Ministry of Defence restrictions