Paradise in biblical times, but now more like a hell on Earth

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The Independent Online

On any other day but this one, the village of Ahmad al-Hamadi, on the green banks of the Euphrates, would be an idyllic place. In the rich, agricultural gardens along the great river, it is easy to understand why this part of Iraq was the original Biblical paradise.

Children in brightly coloured clothes play among fields of potatoes and maize. Men in long, white dishdashehs climb up from the water's edge with fragrant bundles of watercress. But the dozen soldiers of the Black Watch, walking slowly down the road, could be forgiven for seeing this as a hellish place.

On Thursday afternoon, 11 of their regiment were hit by a suicide car bomb at a checkpoint across the river a few miles to the east of here. Three of them, as well as their civilian interpreter, died instantly - the other eight were injured. And now, less than 24 hours after the attack, they are out on patrol again.

Their helmets are strapped on hooks to their belts - instead they wear Tam O'Shanters, the outsize berets, topped by the quivering red feather or "hackle", which are the mark of the Scottish regiments.

Why are the Black Watch out here without helmets and exposed? The answer is at the heart of the British strategy for its 30-day deployment in this obscure and dangerous corner of Iraq. "It was a great shock what happened yesterday, but what we've got to do is take it back to them," says Lieutenant Richard Holmes, the patrol commander. "We've got to get out, get the intelligence, and get feet on the ground."

This is the "softly-softly" theory, the "winning of hearts and minds", and yesterday the Black Watch was once again putting it into action. In practice, it is almost childishly simple. The patrol walks slowly through Ahmad al-Hamadi and, while soldiers carefully scan the countryside, a Scottish interpreter of Arabic and an officer say hello to local people.

They hand out fliers to passing motorists, bearing the photograph of a friendly Scottish soldier and a conciliatory text in Arabic. Three young men sit under a tree, and the soldiers go up to talk to them. A boy named Saleh complains that he cannot afford to go to school. Then comes the key question: what do the locals think about the British soldiers?

"They are afraid that you might beat them and shout at them," says Saleh. Is that really what people say, asks the soldier. "Yes, but they will let you in their houses, if they know that you're not going to hit them."

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