The Black Watch: why they're going and what they'll face when they get there

The decision to deploy British troops to Baghdad to support the American assault on Fallujah has alarmed their families and divided pro-war MPs. A special report by Francis Elliott, Andrew Buncombe, Kim Sengupta and Robert Fox
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Geoff Hoon cut a lonely figure as he sat, hunched over some papers, at a desk near the "aye" lobby of the House of Commons on Monday afternoon. The Secretary of State for Defence was about to tell MPs that "no final decision" had been taken on whether to send British troops north, a holding statement no one would believe.

Geoff Hoon cut a lonely figure as he sat, hunched over some papers, at a desk near the "aye" lobby of the House of Commons on Monday afternoon. The Secretary of State for Defence was about to tell MPs that "no final decision" had been taken on whether to send British troops north, a holding statement no one would believe.

A passing Tory MP was surprised to see a "distraught" Mr Hoon being comforted by none other than Robin Cook. It was about the only sympathy Mr Hoon enjoyed last week as he finally confirmed on Thursday that 850 troops are filling in for American soldiers south-west of Baghdad to enable an assault on the rebel stronghold in Fallujah.

The danger they will face was graphically underlined yesterday as a huge car bomb detonated outside a United States military base west of the capital, killing at least eight and injuring scores more.

From now on, each explosion in the US-controlled north will echo a little more loudly in Britain. The question of whether the troops go north may have been settled, but plenty more remain unanswered. Who will replace them? What additional influence does their presence win over the US military? Is their deployment political window-dressing or a way of sparing George Bush from having to send more troops before the presidential election?

Tony Blair had only just learned of the death of Ken Bigley when he received word of the formal US request for a British battlegroup on 10 October. It had been fed up the chain of command from General John McColl, the most senior British soldier in Iraq.

Informed sources say that Gen McColl, a rising star who made his name in Afghanistan, has been agitating for a greater British presence around Baghdad for some time. It is a frustration shared by Mr Blair, who has tried before to send British troops north. Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence had a barely reported battle in the spring when the Americans made an approach to fill in to enable an attack on Najaf. On that occasion Mr Hoon dug in his heels. With the support of the Chiefs of Staff, he successfully fought off Mr Blair's demands.

This time, however, the response was never seriously in question. Mr Hoon revealed his own lack of influence when he admitted that the question of the deployment had not been raised with him during the two days he spent in the company of Donald Rumsfeld at a Nato meeting in Romania, the week before the news leaked. The Bush administration clearly believes there is only one man worth talking to on such matters - Mr Blair himself.

This weekend, Downing Street is leaving Mr Hoon to collect the blame for one of the most mishandled announcements of Labour's second term. "I think the general view is that it was another Geoff cock-up," said one former cabinet minister and Blair loyalist.

Even those MPs who supported the war began to question whether this was a fig-leaf, covering President Bush's lack of coalition cover. Belatedly, ministers have begun to answer the question of why 850 British soldiers are needed when there are about 150,000 US troops in Iraq. For the most part, military analysts accept their explanation that of that total there are precious few battle-hardened, properly armoured troops left in the locker. The charge of political convenience is more accurately targeted at the claim that President Bush failed to send sufficient troops in the first place and will not now admit as much by sending reinforcements. The issue of long-term deployments to Iraq, and whether the military should be further expanded, have become much-debated issues on the campaign trail.

There is also a growing consensus within the military that the Bush administration made a major strategic error by underestimating the number of troops needed. Despite the administration's insistence that the US has sufficient troops to meet the demands imposed by the President's so-called "war on terror", and that there are no plans to reintroduce the draft, experts agree there is a problem.

A recent study carried out by the US Defence Science Board concluded that the country's military does not have sufficient forces to sustain either current operations or those likely to arise in the near future. Other experts point out that since the invasion of Iraq last spring, serving troops have seen their tours of duty extended - in some cases up to a year - while troops who were due to retire have been forced to stay on in so-called "stop loss" orders.

The order, announced last summer, means that thousands of soldiers who had expected to retire or otherwise leave the military will have to stay on for the duration of their deployment to those combat zones.

It is to plug this shortfall that 500 soldiers of the Black Watch, 100 members of the Queen's Dragoon Guard, 50 Royal Marines and a number of support staff are being deployed. They are being asked to control a stretch of farmland and a cluster of three towns 20 miles south-west of Baghdad, which has seen sustained attacks on US forces as well as kidnapping and murders of foreigners and Iraqis.

The groves of date palms and canals may be lush compared to the arid landscape around Basra, but the living conditions are likely to be far more primitive.

At Forward Operating Base St Michael, in the ruins of a police station in Yusufiyah, soldiers camp out in sandbagged fox holes next to their motor positions. The towns of Iskandariyah, Latifiyah and Mahmudiyah, and the area in between, has been labelled the "triangle of death" by the Western media. The Americans call it the "rat run" to Fallujah, the feeder route through which insurgents, including the group led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had been moving their fighters and weapons to carry out devastating attacks on Baghdad.

The 850 British troops are expected to take over from the US bases in Iskandariyah and Kalsu, a large village further west. When the US marines moved into Iskandariyah following a major operation two weeks ago, the base was mortared 40 times in 10 minutes, 25 were injured in 24 hours and there were 18 roadside bombings in the next three days.

The Americans abandoned patrolling the west side of the Euphrates after coming under repeated attacks. The militants took over and it became a "no-go" area with masked insurgents setting up checkpoints and carrying out abductions. Sunni foreign fighters declared they were establishing an Islamic "Caliphate" in the triangle, enforcing strict Wahabi rules.

Two weeks ago, US forces belatedly attempted to retake the area, launching Operation Phantom Fury with hundreds of marines, Cobra attack helicopters and AC-130 gunships. Major Matt Susse, of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines Regiment, said: "We have to take it. This area is directly tied to the security situation in Baghdad. They are using it to move car bombs, mortars and rockets."

Afterwards the Americans claimed that the area was "pacified". But bombings and shootings have continued daily. Just last week in Latifiyah a local Iraqi politician who had criticised the insurgents was chased in his car through the main street, cornered and shot dead.

Among the questions that remain unanswered is whether the British or Americans will provide tank and air cover and who will replace the soldiers when they leave in 30 days' time. Battlegroups of the Scots Guards and the Queen's Lancashire Regiment are in Cyprus if a "surge requirement" is needed in the run-up to the elections in January.

For the elections even to be possible, however, the US is convinced it must first subdue Fallujah. The city is in the process of being encircled by armoured troops from the US Marine Expeditionary Force and the US army, backed by close support from Apache and Cobra helicopter gunships, AC-130 Spectre and A-10 Warthog close-support aircraft, and fighter-bombers of the US Air Force. By strangling on the ground and striking from the air, it is hoped that the back of the insurgency and the squads of killers loyal to Zarqawi will be broken. The Black Watch is part of a blocking force to prevent rebel reinforcements getting to Fallujah from the south, through the plains of ancient Babylon.

However, few in the American and British commands can now seriously believe that fixing and destroying the enemy in Fallujah will bring an end to the troubles of Iraq. This weekend The New York Times has reported that the American estimates of the numbers of active insurgents has been sharply revised upwards from about 12,000, the estimate in August, to at least 20,000, with 1,000 foreign fighters.

Last month one of the British commanders in Baghdad, Major-General Andrew Graham, told Time magazine he though that a more realistic figure would be between 40,000 and 50,000 insurgents - the equivalent of two medium-sized Iraqi divisions.

So far the leadership of the insurrection has managed to keep out of sight, though the range and co-ordination of attacks suggests that they are the product of some fairly sophisticated operational planning. The core of the leadership is now thought to be from the upper ranks of the dreaded Iraqi State Intelligence Service and the secret police, the mukhabarat, most of whose bosses are still at large. They are well-armed from huge supply dumps laid down and hidden weeks before the coalition forces arrived last year. Satellite imagery at the time showed huge caches of weapons and ammunition being buried in the desert, including medium artillery pieces, tanks and dismembered fighter aircraft.

They are a formidable and elusive force. Even the Prime Minister's most loyal supporters concede he is taking a terrible political risk with this deployment, one that he compounded by his pledge, not so far repeated by Mr Hoon, that the Black Watch will be "home by Christmas".

Home by Christmas: a troubled history

Few public promises have been as frequently made, or broken, as the one made to soldiers that they will be "home by Christmas". This pledge, the latest of whose utterers was Tony Blair to the Black Watch, has a bitter history:

* The first reference is 1862, when optimists took that view of the American Civil War. It lastedthree years and more than half a million died.

* In 1914 men rushed to enlist, fearful they would miss the "adventure" unfolding in Belgium and France. The Canadians agreed to send 25,000 volunteers, in return for a promise that the men would be "home by Christmas". Four years later the survivors returned from the front, with 8.5 million of their comrades dead.

* In October 1950, General Douglas MacArthur told US troops the Korean War would soon end and they would be "home by Christmas". It ended three years later, and left four million dead.

* In 1965, Ronald Reagan said of Vietnam: "We could pave the whole country, put parking strips on it and still be home by Christmas." US involvement ended in 1973, leaving up to five million Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 US and allied troops dead.

And, as for Geoff Hoon's pledge that the Black Watch's engagement will last "weeks rather than months", the phrase was last used in 1965 when Harold Wilson used it to describe the length of time he thought the rebellion of Ian Smith's regime in Rhodesia would last. It ended 14 years - more than 700 weeks - later.