Inside 'Camp Incoming'

When they were sent to a new and dangerous area, many troops feared the worst. For some it came true. Richard Lloyd Parry reports from among them on how a fight against insurgents has become a mission largely devoted to survival
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The Independent Online

In the early hours of yesterday, guided by the night-vision goggles strapped to their helmets, a company of Black Watch soldiers walked silently through the desert hoping for a small success story at the end of a grim week.

In the early hours of yesterday, guided by the night-vision goggles strapped to their helmets, a company of Black Watch soldiers walked silently through the desert hoping for a small success story at the end of a grim week.

Their objective was houses on the westside of the Euphrates where, according to intelligence reports, heavy guns and other weapons were being stored. The soldiers surrounded it, knocked on the door and politely but forcefully made their entry. Two hours later, they climbed back into their Warrior armoured vehicles as dawn was breaking - with nothing.

The houses contained no heavy machine guns, rocket launchers or explosives. The confused inhabitants were neither resistance fighters nor guerrillas. The British soldiers were as civil and decent as it is possible to be on a dawn raid, but this operation had brought them no closer to untying the deadly knot of Islamic militants, Baathist nationalists and American military strategy in which they find themselves tangled.

A week ago, the Black Watch was a regiment facing a tough job in a difficult environment - the greatest hardship they faced was their grotesquely dismal base, Camp Dogwood.

Today, they are at war, beset by rocket attacks, the deaths of three soldiers and an interpreter in a suicide car bomb, and by a mortifying controversy engulfing their own commanding officer, Lt-Col James Cowan.

From the moment news of the deployment was leaked by anxious relatives of Black Watch soldiers, it has been a source of domestic discord - the focus for stubborn discontent at Tony Blair's handling of the whole Iraq enterprise. If the next seven days are as bad as the past week has been, the fate of the Black Watch will be as much of a political problem as a military one.

Before their deployment 11 days ago, the Black Watch had been set three tasks - to block off "rat runs" for guerrilla fighters escaping the imminent attack on Fallujah; to combat banditry and to gather intelligence on the key resistance groups in the area. As far as can be gathered from briefings given to the small British press pool in Camp Dogwood, there has been no palpable progress in any of these objectives.

No prisoners have been taken, no significant weapons caches have been uncovered and, if the dawn raid yesterday is anything to go by, no reliable sources of intelligence have so far been tapped.

Black Watch officers play down expectations of instant results. The strategy is still to adopt a discreet, low-key and, above all, mannerly approach, patrolling openly, wherever possible in the regiment's soft Tam O'Shanters rather than helmets, and to establish friendly contacts in the small farming villages of the region. "What we don't want to do," said Major Alastair Aitken yesterday, "is to go kicking down doors." But in the past week, these tasks have been eclipsed by the more pressing need - that of simply protecting the battlegroup itself from missiles. Rockets have whizzed into Dogwood on most days, although most have landed in empty areas of the vast camp, and at least half have failed to explode. Some of these missiles have a range of up to 13km.

Early last week, the British battle group's radar revealed that some were being fired from the far, east bank of the Euphrates, formerly under the control of US marines. It was to mitigate this threat that, last Wednesday, the Black Watch took over the eastern strip along the river, thus leading to last week's great tragedy.

The eastern zone is fertile, affluent and one step closer to Mahmudiyah, Latifiyah, and Iskandariyah, the lawless resistance bases in the so-called Triangle of Death. When on Thursday, a suicide car bomber killed himself at a checkpoint, along with three Black Watch soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter, the surviving soldiers were then shelled with mortars, revealing a frightening speed of response among the unknown attackers.

"The principal threat round here," said a senior commander, "is that this is an area of bright, educated people who can lay on deliberate, well-thought-out attacks." The day after the attack, the battlegroup was out again, calmly patrolling in their soft hats.

The most unexpected shock came yesterday with the revelation in The Daily Telegraph that the Black Watch's own commanding officer, Lt-Col Cowan, was the author of emails, first published anonymously nine days ago, questioning the very deployment he leads. He predicted that "every lunatic terrorist from miles around will descend on us like bees to honey". He wrote: "I hope the Government knows what it has got itself into. I'm not sure they fully appreciate the risks."

A British press officer in Dogwood said yesterday: "He has seen the article, but we never comment on private emails."

L/Cpl Danny Buist, after the news of the deaths of the three soldiers, said: "The Black Watch is a family regiment and we're all quite close. It's just, 'Chin up', and get on with it. No one knows what's next, or who'll be next. Hopefully, no one will be next." The Black Watch may be on the back foot, but so far it is keeping its cool. After a week like this, perhaps that in itself is something of an achievement.

This pooled dispatch from Richard Lloyd Parry of 'The Times' was compiled under Ministry of Defence restrictions

UNDER FIRE

Thursday 28 October

Black Watch begins arriving at Camp Dogwood, 44 kilometres south-west of Baghdad.

Friday 29 October

Pte Kevin McHale, 27, is killed on the approach to Dogwood when his Warrior armoured vehicle rolls off a track. Attacks on the camp begin.

Monday 1 November

Seven rockets fall on the camp within an hour, the fourth consecutive day of missile attacks.

Tuesday 2 November

Ten rockets whistle into Camp Dogwood in the evening but none explodes. Radar detects them coming from the eastern side of the Euphrates beyond the boundary of the Black Watch's operational area.

Wednesday 3 November

Bomb-disposal teams hunt down and set off unexploded bombs after the camp is attacked for the sixth night. A Warrior armoured car patrolling east of the river is disabled by a bomb. A second Warrior is hit as it goes to help.

Thursday 4 November

Another Warrior breaks down on patrol. A roadblock set up around the stricken vehicle is attacked by a suicide bomber in a car. Three soldiers and one Iraqi interpreter are killed and 11 injured.

Friday 5 November

Members of the Black Watch patrol again, this time west of the Euphrates. Dogwood is still plagued by incoming rockets.

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