Army insists it must still win support of locals

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The Ministry of Defence said yesterday it would not be deflected from its mission to win the support of Iraqis as it named the three British soldiers killed in a weekend ambush in Basra.

Officers said Saturday's attack on a four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying Royal Military policemen from the 19th Mechanised Brigade was an occupational hazard in their mission to help rebuild the country.

Soft-skinned vehicles such as the Nissan caught in the attack would continue to be used instead of armoured vehicles, which the MoD believes would send the wrong signal to the local population, whose trust it is trying to win.

The Army rejected allegations that the vehicle was used because of a shortage of armoured carriers. A spokesman for British forces in Basra said: "Our forces and multinational Allies have to engage with the local population and authorities. We can't do that from behind armoured vehicles with reinforced windows or by staying in camps."

The dead men were named yesterday as Major Matthew Titchener, 32, Warrant Officer Colin Wall, 34, and Corporal Dewi Pritchard, 35, all members of the Royal Military Police (RMP). Their deaths bring the total number of fatalities for soldiers on active service in Iraq to 49, two more than the total for the 1991 Gulf War.

The soldiers were attacked as they drove along a main street in an armed convoy of two vehicles. Witnesses said a pick-up truck followed the British vehicles as they left a guarded compound. Gunmen inside the pick-up opened fire on the rear four-wheel-drive and threw a bomb at it, killing three of the soldiers inside. A fourth was seriously injured and was yesterday being treated in hospital.

The soldiers were training civilian police in a similar mission to the six military police killed in Majar al-Kabir on 24 June. An MoD spokeswoman said that as well as maintaining law and order in the city and working to build trust with the local community, the soldiers were training the Iraqi police in recruitment.

The ambush was the second attack in which British troops have been killed in Basra in less than two weeks. Captain David Jones was killed in a bomb attack on a military ambulance in the city 11 days ago. Two weeks ago, British soldiers had to contain riots by Iraqis enraged at constant power cuts and fuel shortages.

The flag was at half-mast at the RMP regimental headquarters in Chichester, West Sussex, where all three men trained before leaving for Iraq two months ago. The bodies of the men, who all have young families, will be flown home in the next three days. The commanding officer, Brigadier Maurice Nugent, said: "The Royal Military Police are one of the key players in the effort to reform and resurrect the civil police in Iraq, and I am proud of the role played in this by [the three men]."

Bernard Jenkin, the shadow Defence Secretary, suggested the time had come to re-evaluate the Army's strategy in Iraq. Offering his "deepest and heartfelt condolences" on behalf of the Opposition, he told Sky News: "This is another terrible loss for British forces in Iraq.

"The immediate questions you ask are about short-term considerations like have they got the right equipment? Are there enough of them? But in the longer term, I don't know whether we are getting to a point where we have to re-evaluate the entire strategy."