Black Watch shake off the doubters, pray - and prepare for action

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The Independent Online

They have been at the centre of a huge political controversy with their deployment to help American forces, the catalyst for fresh and bitter debate about the Iraq war. But yesterday, for the Black Watch, it was the time for final preparations, as well as quiet reflection, before the move upcountry to one of the most dangerous of places in this vicious conflict.

They have been at the centre of a huge political controversy with their deployment to help American forces, the catalyst for fresh and bitter debate about the Iraq war. But yesterday, for the Black Watch, it was the time for final preparations, as well as quiet reflection, before the move upcountry to one of the most dangerous of places in this vicious conflict.

The troops are expected to leave their base near the southern city of Basra in the next 48 hours for an area around Iskandariyah, 20 miles or so south of Baghdad. There is a sense of discomfort, among many in the Black Watch, that they are being used by politicians. But there is also resentment at what they see as the media exploiting the anxieties of their families back home, and intruding in their privacy.

That feeling was made clear by their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James Cowan, to journalists at their barracks in Shaiba. He talked about the proud history of the Black Watch and how they had played a part in the defeats of "Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler", and gave diplomatic answers to questions about whether his men would become identified with what is seen by many Iraqis as the over-aggressive approach of the Americans.

The mood at the final open-air Sunday church ceremony before departure was sombre and thoughtful. Padre Aled Thomas had chosen from the Book of Joshua, about the crossing of the Euphrates, which is the river the troops at prayer, some on their Warrior armoured cars, will cross to their new positions. The regimental band played "Amazing Grace" and "Flower of Scotland". Padre Thomas, a Welshman in a Highland regiment, spoke of the reality of war. Young men, some no older than 19 and 20, had come to talk to him about preparing for possible death, spiritually and about the practicalities involved, preparing wills, informing families.

Major Alastair Aitken said he found it odd to hear the regiment being discussed in the House of Commons, how people seemed to be experts on morale in the regiment at the thought of going north. "We appear to be the only ones who weren't asked," he said drily.

The Black Watch will free US Marines who will join forces massing to capture the rebel stronghold of Fallujah. But the British soldiers will be very much in the firing line, at a flashpoint the Western media have taken to calling the Triangle of Death, the dust-blown towns of Iskandariyah, Latifiyah and Mahmudiyah.

US Marines moved into Iskandariyah after a major operation two weeks ago; the base was mortared 40 times in 10 minutes, and 25 marines were wounded in 24 hours. In the next three days, 18 roadside bombs were detonated.

The Black Watch will stand astride the feeder route through which insurgents, including those led by the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had been moving their fighters and weapons to mount devastating attacks on Baghdad.

Corporal Allie McNaughton said the Black Watch had fought their way into southern Iraq during the war, and seen street-fighting in Basra and al-Amara. " We had taken everything Iraq had to throw at us, and now there will be more," he said. "That much seems certain."

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