Three Black Watch troops killed in suicide attack

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An Iraqi suicide bomber killed three soldiers from the Black Watch regiment, and their interpreter, at a vehicle checkpoint close to Baghdad yesterday. Eight more soldiers were injured.

An Iraqi suicide bomber killed three soldiers from the Black Watch regiment, and their interpreter, at a vehicle checkpoint close to Baghdad yesterday. Eight more soldiers were injured.

The British troops, less than a week into their controversial extended mission north of Basra, were killed after they were deployed against insurgents who had been firing rockets and mortars at their sprawling Camp Dogwood base.

Troops were ordered across the river Euphrates - into the so-called Triangle of Death - to clear the east bank, an area they had not patrolled before. The suicide bomber, a Sunni Muslim, drove a car at them before setting off his explosives. The soldiers then came under mortar attack. US forces helped to evacuate casualties.

A source said: "It is, unfortunately, ideal ambush territory. They had to extend their area, because you can't sit in your camp being hit by rockets."

The three deaths bring to 73 the number of British troops to have died in Iraq since the beginning of the conflict. It was the worst combat loss since three Royal Military Police were killed in the south 14 months ago.

The Ministry of Defence today named the latest victims as Sergeant Stuart Gray, Private Paul Lowe and Private Scott McArdle.

The casualties shocked MPs, sparking recriminations at Westminster. One minister said: "It is our worst fears. Unfortunately, it was not unexpected. We sent them into a dangerous area."

The Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, said it would be a matter for commanders on the ground whether they continued to patrol on the east bank. "We always knew that there were risks involved in these engagements, but this is for the Iraqi people," he said. "Is it a price worth paying? Well, the Iraqis are the best judge of that."

The troops are the first British troops to die in combat since the regiment was ordered out of the British-held area in Basra to provide back-up for US troops preparing for an assault on Fallujah. They are the first British troops to be killed by a suicide attack in Iraq.

The British area of operations had been confined to a largely uninhabited - and so safer - area west of the river. After rockets were fired from the east, it was decided to cross the river, into a district largely controlled by insurgents, and to set up checkpoints.

British troops had hoped the tactics they adopted in southern Iraq - checkpoints on the roads and personal contact with Iraqi drivers - would demonstrate a more friendly face than that shown by US forces who long since abandoned any checkpoints in the area. Yesterday's attack proved that the British are just as vulnerable as the Americans - and just as liable to attack - if they stray into the insurgents' zone.

The suicide-bomber technique has been perfected in Iraq and has, in effect, driven US infantrymen and static patrols off the roads. If the British thought they would be immune from this side of the war, these events prove they will be treated with the same ruthlessness as US forces.

Tony Blair had promised that the Black Watch would be "home by Christmas" but many said they were "angry and nervous" about being ordered 350 miles north to patrol routes into Fallujah. Many of those attacked were looking forward to going home last week, until they received their orders.

Militant groups in Iraq threatened retribution on the British troops who have taken over the former US base between Hillah and Iskandariyah.

Anti-war Labour MPs angrily accused Mr Blair of being partly to blame for the deaths, by agreeing to support President George Bush in deploying British troops to support the US attack on Fallujah. Mr Blair heard the news in Brussels. His spokesman said: "The Prime Minister's thoughts are with the Black Watch and the families of the Black Watch."

Insurgents had earlier put a British patrol under heavy fire after exploding a mine under one of its Warrior armoured vehicles. The force of the blast rocked the vehicle, ripping the front wheels off and leaving its three crew and complement of troops stranded. As a second Warrior sped to the vehicle to rescue troops in the darkness, insurgents fired a mortar bomb that exploded feet away.

The explosion caused the rescue vehicle to career into a ditch with troops escaping from the rear to check on their comrades in the first vehicle. Despite being under constant threat of more attacks, soldiers managed to get the second Warrior out of the ditch and retreated to safety.

News of the fatalities was given to a sombre Commons in an emergency statement by Mr Ingram. Bruce George, chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Defence, said: 'I am shocked and very sad indeed. This is a dangerous place, and the soldiers, frankly, are heroes. It would be utterly wrong to seek to make political capital out of this tragedy."

The SNP MP Angus Robertson warned the deaths would have "profound implications for public opinion in Scotland".