From the army recruiting office in Fife to death by the Euphrates

The killing of three Black Watch soldiers and an interpreter has brought home the deadly chaos of Iraq once more. On these pages we report from Scotland, Westminster and the battlefield on how politics and tactics broke the hearts of British families
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The Independent Online

If his job prospects had been any better in Fife, Private Scott McArdle would never have returned to the alien banks of the Euphrates, thousands of miles from his home in the sprawling Scottish new town of Glenrothes, to fight in a war he thought he had left behind for good.

Earlier this year, the 22-year-old had finished a four-year stint with the Black Watch. He had been good at his job, serving as a rifleman in the regiment's elite reconnaissance unit, but he decided to quit, find a civilian job and settle down to raise a family with his fiancee, a local girl called Sarah McLaren.

It did not take long for that plan to founder. Barely six weeks after he left the army, Pte McArdle found himself back at the recruiting office, signing up for his second stint in Iraq. It was, said his uncle Martin McArdle, himself a former soldier with the South African Defence Force, his only immediate option: "There wasn't much on offer for him around here."

And when the Black Watch was chosen to move north from the relative calm of the Basra sector to the "triangle of death" around Baghdad and Fallujah, Scott McArdle went with his regiment. At 1pm last Thursday, he was killed on a lonely stretch of road by a suicide bomber, along with Sergeant Stuart Gray, 31, Pte Paul Lowe, 19, and their Iraqi interpreter.

"I don't think Scott joined the army out of any particular ambition to be a soldier," Martin McArdle said on Friday, speaking outside the family's modern terraced house overlooking woodland on the fringes of Glenrothes. "He just saw it as a way of getting a good job which would be fun, financially safe and provide a career for him ... When he left school at 16, he signed up for four years. It was that, or the dole."

His nephew preferred not to talk about what he did on the front line and spent most of his time at home with his friends and family, and following his one other great passion - supporting Glasgow Rangers football club. Yet Scott was following a family tradition. His father William, 44, had also served with the Black Watch.

Paul Lowe - who, like Pte McArdle, had joined straight from school at 16 - was following his older cousin Barry into the ranks, and was followed in his turn by his younger brother, Craig. Underlining that family bond, all three Lowes were photographed on an armoured vehicle on Salisbury Plain in June this year, during their final training before heading to Basra. Their arms were thrown over each others' shoulders, their faces breaking with shy but engaging grins.

Craig, who sat in the middle with the broadest grin of all, was fighting back the tears on Friday as he stood outside his family's semi-detached, pebbledashed council house. Instead of desert camouflage, he was wearing a bright yellow Scotland football strip, with the legend "Lowe 1" on the back. "I joined up because of Paul," he said. "He loved every minute of it."

After news of the regiment's deployment to Camp Dogwood emerged in mid-October, Paul Lowe's mother Helen told a newspaper it had been a "living nightmare" waiting for his safe return. "You can imagine just how tough this has been for us all," she said. "He's only 19 and he says he's had enough - he just wants to come home."

Scott McArdle had been due to marry his fiancée in January, when she is expecting their baby. Sgt Gray, the oldest of the three to be killed, is survived by his widow, Wendy, 33, a daughter, Kirstin, 12 and a 10-year-old son, Darren. An extremely experienced soldier who was serving in the mortar platoon, Stuart Gray signed up at 19 and had served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. He was on his second tour in Iraq.

Of the three grieving families, the Grays kept their counsel the most. On Friday, Kirstin briefly emerged, tears flooding her face, to lay a bouquet of 10 red roses at the gates of the regiment's base in Warminster, Wiltshire. "To Dad. Love you and miss you," her handwritten note said simply.

For many, news of Thursday's devastating attack on the Black Watch crystallised all the doubts that had arisen since the regiment's redeployment was first mooted in October. Suspicions were voiced that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was seeking to help his friend, George Bush, win re-election by showing that the US was not isolated in Iraq. Moving into an area previously held by American troops, with their over-aggressive "spray and slay" policy, could be highly dangerous for British forces seeking to adopt a lower-profile, intelligence-led approach, it was feared.

Aware of the sensitivities, Mr Blair insisted as late as Prime Minister's questions on 20 October that no decision had been taken, only for his Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, to announce the deployment the next day. Just over a week later the regiment was arriving at Camp Dogwood, in the desert west of the Euphrates, and hopes that the location might be less dangerous than the insurgent-infested countryside on the other side of the river were quickly dispelled.

From the moment the Black Watch took over what had been a disused American logistics base, troops came under regular rocket and mortar fire, though many of the projectiles failed to explode, and none have caused any casualties so far. It soon became apparent that much of the fire came from east of the Euphrates, an area supposed to be controlled by US Marines.

But the structure of the US military means that the Marines are obliged to supply "force protection" to the many other Americans in uniform who have little combat training, and they were unable to commit forces to dealing with the insurgents firing at the British across the river. So last week the Black Watch's operational area was extended to the eastern bank of the Euphrates - the "mission creep" many had considered inevitable once it ventured north.

The first day the regiment's Warriors went on patrol in the enlarged area, they came under well co-ordinated attack from a roadside bomb, mortars and a rocket-propelled grenade. On the second day, a suicide bomber appeared within 20 minutes of a roadblock being set up to deal with another Warrior which had broken down.

Sgt Gray and Ptes McArdle and Lowe were killed, along with their interpreter, who had postponed his marriage to travel from Basra with the regiment, and died on what was to have been his wedding day. His name, as well as that of his fiancée, has been withheld to avoid possible reprisals from insurgents. Eleven other Black Watch soldiers were wounded in the explosion and the mortar barrage which followed.

In their grief, the families of the dead soldiers did not hold back. "We think Bush was an arsehole for starting a war over nothing, trying to get money and oil," said Craig Lowe, perhaps being unwisely blunt for a serving soldier.

"Paul thought that, too. I think they should just get the boys out of there now. If not, we're going to lose a lot more than this."

Martin McArdle, Scott's uncle, was "very angry" about their exposure to the very obvious dangers. "I just think it's a waste, not just of Scott's life, but all the other soldiers who have died out there. It just seems like another Vietnam. The troops should be pulled out.

"The boys were prepared to defend their country - but not to fight other country's wars. I hope Tony Blair can sleep tonight. He has sent these boys in to fight somebody else's war. George Bush has won his re-election - I say bring the Black Watch home and let the Americans fight their own war." Yesterday it emerged, according to a report in The Daily Telegraph, that even the commanding officer of the Black Watch, Lieutenant-Colonel James Cowan, shared the doubts about the regiment's mission. The newspaper said he was the author of emails it had published earlier, saying: "I hope the Government knows what it has got itself into. I'm not sure they fully appreciate the risks." He is also said to have warned that the regiment expected "every lunatic terrorist from miles around to descend on us like bees to honey".

But in sharp contrast to the fierce opposition provoked by original decision to send the Black Watch into the Sunni triangle, the deaths brought a muted response from almost every member of the political class. After the news was announced to a hushed House of Commons by the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, there were short, respectful statements from the three MPs who replied on behalf of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist parties, and silence from the rest.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, summed up the reaction as one "of great sadness and a determination, with one notable exception, to make no effort to try and make any kind of political capital out of this." That "notable exception" was the SNP leader Alex Salmond, an aggressive political street fighter who deduced from the early reaction of Craig Lowe that some - if not all - of the grieving relatives did not want their loved ones' deaths to be marked by a period of political silence.

Mr Salmond boldly repeated in public what numerous MPs were thinking, that the dead men were sacrificial victims of Tony Blair's ill-chosen alliance with George Bush. "This deployment was political in its nature. We think the request was political, the answer was political during an American Presidential election," he claimed.

Mr Salmond went on to accuse the government of being unaware of the heat of public reaction to the dreadful news from Iraq, particularly in Scotland. "There is also a tide of anger sweeping the country now about the situation in Iraq," he said. "People feel anger at the war, anger at the political nature of the deployment of the Black Watch and anger about the future of the regiment faced with amalgamation."

Mr Hoon went on to BBC Radio 4's Today programme to reply, saying the SNP Leader's remarks "demonstrate clearly there are no depths to which he will not sink". He added: "I cannot understand why he does this. I cannot understand why someone should seek to take political advantage about the tragic deaths of three brave men and their interpreter."

Given the seriousness of the charge Mr Salmond was levelling - that the Government sent men to their death for the sake of political gain - Mr Hoon's tone was very controlled and downbeat. That partly reflects his own character. Mr Hoon is an even-tempered man, who doesn't show strong emotions.

It may also reflect a kind of weary acceptance in government that the Iraq war will dog them for years, producing individual tragedies and throwing up endless damaging accusations which have to be answered one at a time, year in year out.

When MPs return to the Commons after the weekend, opponents of the war will be more convinced than ever that the only way to prevent more Britons from being killed in Iraq is for Mr Blair to set a date by which all British troops will be pulled out.

So far, the Prime Minister has promised only that the Black Watch will be "home by Christmas". He seems to have decided that there will be British troops in Iraq for as long as the Americans are there. The Government has not said whether their departure will simply mean that some other British regiment will be redeployed into the triangle of death.

The former Defence Minister, Peter Kilfoyle, vowed yesterday to keep up the pressure on Tony Blair to pull out the troops, but he admitted: "With Prime Minister Bush - sorry, Freudian slip - with Prime Minister Blair in thrall to President Bush, I just can't see that happening."

The suicide attack - the first on British troops in Iraq - was a shock for the whole country, but in the towns, villages and housing estates of Perthshire, Tayside and Fife, where the Black Watch has its roots, it was deeply personal. These are places where the regiment has recruited young soldiers for nearly 300 years. Its distinctive dark green and black regimental tartan runs like a seam of coal through the area.

The plan to merge all six Scots regiments - including the Black Watch - into one "super-regiment" has provoked a passionate campaign to preserve each battalion's identity across the country. The Black Watch - formed originally to suppress the nationalist Jacobite revolt against the Royalist Stuarts - also regards itself as Scotland's elite infantry regiment.

It fought for the Crown in the American War of Independence, Waterloo and the Somme. Until her death, its colonel-in-chief was the Queen Mother. Her passionate interest in the fate and triumphs of the regiment is written into its folklore. Loyalty to local regiments in much of Scotland runs very deep indeed. In Kelty, local teenagers bristled angrily as reporters crowded in front of the Lowe family home. One was chased down the street.

For the mother of Sgt Stuart Gray, 31, that pride was notable. His uncle, Robert Tenent-Gray, told reporters: "Stuart's mum has asked me to make a statement. She is obviously deeply shocked by the news of the death of her son. Yet that sadness is tinged by her pride in her much loved son, who was a member of the local regiment."

Over the past two days, scores of bouquets have been laid outside the regiment's church, St Giles, in Warminster: flowers, thistles and even a Glasgow Rangers football scarf - in memory, perhaps, of Pte McArdle. Yet yesterday, despite the consolatory visit to Battlesbury barracks by Prince Charles, the honorary colonel-in-chief of the Black Watch, Wendy Gray remained at home - unwilling to display her grief publicly. On Friday her father, James Higginbotham, had said simply: "All I know is that my son-in-law is dead and he was a great guy."

The Prince of Wales's visit was also very private. The few reporters admitted to cover the event were barred from meeting any of the 80 or so families from the Black Watch and Queen's Dragoon Guards - which included those of men now out in Iraq - who met Prince Charles.

According to Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, the colonel of the regiment, the families were "absolutely thrilled" to see the prince. "It does an enormous amount of good for them to gather together in this sort of way and for somebody like the Colonel-in-Chief to come and show an interest and express solidarity," he said.