Two British soldiers injured in suicide car bomb attack

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The Independent Online

Two British soldiers were gravely injured by a suicide car bomb yesterday as troops of the Black Watch regiment were ordered by the US military into the rebel-dominated east bank of the river Euphrates in a fruitless attempt to capture insurgent guerrillas and weapons.

Two British soldiers were gravely injured by a suicide car bomb yesterday as troops of the Black Watch regiment were ordered by the US military into the rebel-dominated east bank of the river Euphrates in a fruitless attempt to capture insurgent guerrillas and weapons.

The casualties, three days after three Black Watch soldiers died in a similar suicide attack, will raise fresh concerns about the wisdom of the British deployment, which has been questioned by its commanding officer, Lt Col James Cowan.

The two men are Corporal Neil Heritage of the Royal Logistics Corps and Corporal Michael Brennan of the Royal Signals, both of them bomb disposal experts attached to the Black Watch battle group. At 9.20am yesterday they were sitting in the back hatch of their open Warrior armoured vehicle on the west bank of the Euphrates when a car drove towards them and exploded.

They were treated by a military doctor and flown in US helicopters to an American field hospital in Baghdad, pending evacuation to a military hospital in Germany. Last night at least one of the men was in danger of losing both his legs.

It was the second suicide bomb attack against British soldiers in central Iraq in three days. On Thursday, three Black Watch soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were killed, and eight injured, when a car bomber drove into a checkpoint on the east bank of the Euphrates.

Another Black Watch soldier died 10 days ago when his Warrior armoured car rolled over during the journey from the British headquarters in the southern city of Basra.

But despite five deaths and 10 injuries, the Black Watch have made no palpable progress in any of their objectives: combating banditry, gathering intelligence on insurgent activity in their area of operation, and intercepting guerrillas on the supply routes to and from the rebel-held city of Fallujah, where an imminent US assault is expected.

So far, Col Cowan has been vindicated in his judgement, expressed in a private e-mail leaked to The Daily Telegraph last month, that "every lunatic terrorist from miles around [will] descend on us like bees to honey". He added: "I hope the Government knows what it has got itself into. I'm not sure they fully appreciate the risks."

Col Cowan has refused to comment on the e-mails, but no one at Camp Dogwood has disputed their authenticity.

Yesterday's operation was not the idea of Col Cowan. It was ordered - "very quickly", according to military sources in Dogwood - by the men who command him, the officers of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, led by Colonel Ron Johnson.

It involved all three companies and most of the soldiers of the 800-strong battle group - so depleted was Camp Dogwood that the regiment's cooks and medical orderlies were responsible for guarding the perimeter of the camp.

The object was to block off routes used by insurgents, channelling them into mobile road blocks, and to set up Forward Operating Base Springfield, a temporary position on the east side of the Euphrates.

The base was established, but within hours it had come under the same rocket or mortar fire which has plagued Camp Dogwood. And despite an elaborate arrangement of intercepts and road blocks to channel insurgents into the hands of the Black Watch, the operation failed to net any guerrillas or their weapons. All three companies of the Black Watch battalion were involved, as well as Scimitar light tanks of the Queen's Dragoon Guards which fanned out across the desert to the west of Dogwood.

Before dawn yesterday, a lone piper, Pipe Major Scott Taylor, 34, from Glasgow, walked across the Jurf al-Sakhr Bridge, which links the west and east banks, playing a lament for the three soldiers who died three days earlier.

Once the bridge had been secured with vehicles from D company of the Black Watch, a second company of Warrior armoured cars moved over and blocked a road on one of the "rat runs" linking Fallujah to Baghdad and to the lawless towns of the so-called "Triangle of Death" - Latifiyah, Iskandariyah and Mahmudiyah.

Two and a half hours later, at 9.20am, the suicide bomb brought new victims. Word of the casualties quickly spread by radio among the other soldiers.

"Everyone was chain smoking like there was no tomorrow," said Maurice McDonald, a photographer for the Press Association, who was on the bridge when the explosion took place. "Even the piper was mad at it. We had to open the back of the Warrior to let in some fresh air."

A third Black Watch company set up Forward Operating Base Springfield in an abandoned industrial complex. Almost immediately they came under mortar and rocket fire.

¿ A British contractor was killed in southern Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded by his car yesterday, the Foreign Office said. The British military said the bomb went off in Zubayr, just south of Basra.

This is a pooled dispatch from Richard Lloyd Parry of 'The Times', compiled under Ministry of Defence restrictions.

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