Black Watch is needed in south, say military chiefs

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British military chiefs have told the Government that they want the Black Watch to be withdrawn from their role supporting American forces now that the Fallujah operation is drawing to a close.

British military chiefs have told the Government that they want the Black Watch to be withdrawn from their role supporting American forces now that the Fallujah operation is drawing to a close.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Mike Walker, has already informed the US military of the British view, and any decision to keep British forces deployed in central Iraq beyond this period "would be a political decision and militarily irresponsible", senior defence sources told The Independent.

Replacing the Black Watch with the only viable British alternative - the Scots Guards, currently acting as divisional reserves - would leave the British-controlled south of the country vulnerable in the expected wave of violence in the run-up to the elections scheduled for January.

Senior officers say the plan is to withdraw the Black Watch as soon as the Fallujah operation is over, or when the battle group's 30-day deployment ends on 3 December, "whichever is sooner". British forces do not intend to provide similar support if, as expected, US forces mount Fallujah-type offensives in Ramadi and other centres of resistance.

British commanders also said they were "surprised" by Tony Blair's categorical statement in the House of Commons that the Black Watch would be home by Christmas - which, they said, has put them under operational constraints.

The forthright views of senior Army staff puts the decision on the deployment of the Black Watch firmly in the hands of the Government. Mr Blair and his ministers have always insisted that the deployment was a purely "military decision".

However, it is a decision that has mired the Government in controversy. Even Labour MPs previous loyal over Iraq have questioned the deployment, during which four soldiers and an Iraqi translator have been killed and 12 injured. The Black Watch's base, Camp Dogwood, has come under frequent attack.

The US and the interim Iraqi government have declared victory in Fallujah with the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, saying American forces control the rebel city and Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, announcing that the assault has been a "comprehensive victory". Before the offensive, the US military claimed to have "sealed off" Fallujah. But there is widespread acceptance that thousands of resistance fighters slipped through the American military cordon before the main assault began and many have now regrouped in surrounding areas including thre cities of Ramadi, Iskandariyah and Latifiyah.

Mr Allawi announced yesterday that the leader of "the so-called Jaish Mohammed" (Mohammed's Army) had been arrested. He identified him as Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, also known as Abu Ahmed, and said that his group, which has been collaborating with the faction led by theJordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was planning to "destroy Fallujah by blowing up important positions".

An audiotape, purportedly from Zarqawi, urged insurgents to mobilise against US-led forces to prevent them from attacking other cities. "If the enemy finishes in Fallujah they will move towards you, so be alert and foil this plan ... Advance towards them and rain rockets and mortars down on them". The authenticity of the tape, posted on a website often used by Islamists, could not be immediately verified.

The US military said a network of tunnels and underground bunkers had been found in southern Fallujah. They connected weapons stores, a sleeping area and a truck.

The fate of the city's civilians is still unclear. Yesterday, a convoy of the Iraqi Red Crescent was unable to gain access.

The area where the Black Watch battle group is deployed is strategically important for operations south of Fallujah. It had been neglected by the Americans, which allowed insurgents more or less free movement. A senior British military source said: "There was a need to fill the vacuum, and this will continue to be the case. Other forces will be needed in the future, but it won't be us."

US and Iraqi forces launched air strikes and fought gun battles yesterday in Baquba, north-east of Baghdad, after rebels attacked a police station.

* Hungary's parliament voted down a government plan to extend the mission of its 300-strong military contingent in Iraq on Monday, obliging Budapest to withdraw its forces by the end of 2004.