What the Black Watch are up against

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The Independent Online

It was not until yesterday that we discovered that the Black Watch forward base, east of the Euphrates, was actually at the looted al-Qaqa'a military complex, the place American soldiers stood and watched lorryloads of weapons and explosives being carted away.

It was not until yesterday that we discovered that the Black Watch forward base, east of the Euphrates, was actually at the looted al-Qaqa'a military complex, the place American soldiers stood and watched lorryloads of weapons and explosives being carted away.

So we are, in effect, in the middle of the biggest insurgency supply depot in Iraq - hardly surprising that there have been so many rockets, mortars and car bombs.

The British military here know the complex as ELM. They say the Americans have left an intelligence vacuum here, and perhaps this includes a failure to disclose the full import of what happened at al-Qaqa'a. Apart from anything else, it was one of the most damaging charges laid against George Bush by his election opponent, John Kerry.

To recap, 350 tons of explosives and weapons were taken from the military industrial complex after US troops left the area - refusing, it has been claimed, requests to secure the site. The International Atomic Energy Agency has revealed that among the weaponry stolen were rockets, mortars and tank shells as well as HMX and RDX, key components in making plastic explosives such as C-4 and Semtex, much favoured by insurgent groups.

Al-Qaqa'a was named in Tony Blair's Iraq weapons dossier in September 2002 as a place allegedly producing phosgene, a precursor for nerve agents. On the day the dossier appeared I was among a group of British journalists in Baghdad taken by the Iraqi regime to some of the sites named as production centres for chemical and biological weapons. We reported we had seen nothing overtly suspicious, stressing that since we did not have scientific knowledge, ours was a superficial judgment. Downing Street said we were "naive dupes", but the United Nations, the IAEA and the Iraq Survey Group have all subsequently found the claims in the dossier to be false.

The factories did, however, legitimately produce explosives for Iraq's armed forces. Just before the war, IAEA inspectors checked the seals in the bunker where the material was stored and found them to be intact. These were the weapons and explosives that were stolen.

The attacks on Camp Dogwood, the main Black Watch base, have now fallen into a pattern. These are certainly not every day, but we had three attacks in the space of 24 hours with rockets landing in the centre of the camp. The target appears to be the helicopter pad, which was hit once. But the insurgents are mainly firing Chinese versions of elderly 107mm Katyushka rockets, very much "fire and forget" weapons, and the apprehension is that they will take out a lot else, including the press tent, in the process.

The tempo of the Black Watch's operations has gone up significantly in the past few days. As the American onslaught on Fallujah continued, the resistance carried out more attacks elsewhere - not just in Baghdad, Ramadi and Mosul, but also on the British soldiers right next door.

The types of operations carried out by the militants have also changed. The British force was apparently surprised by being hit with a campaign of suicide bombings after their deployment north from Basra, where they had not faced such attacks.

But there have also been recoveries of weapons and explosives, and arrests in proactive operations. There are also less overt successes: the supply lines to Fallujah have been blocked, and there is little sign of resistance fighters from Fallujah getting away through the southern route.

Camp Dogwood itself is a vast wilderness of rock and sand, desolate and dangerous. Living conditions are as basic as can be. But no one wants to put down signs of permanency here. Tony Blair has told the Black Watch that they will be going home for Christmas, and they are holding him to it.

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