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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 13:00 GMT
Settling into Camp Dogwood, Iraq

By David Loyn
BBC News, Camp Dogwood

Black Watch soldier on community patrol near Camp Dogwood
Black Watch soldiers are trying to win friends in Iraqi villages
When the Black Watch battle group made their move north, there was an "intelligence vacuum" in the area according to an army source here; they did not know exactly what they would face.

In the nine days that they have been here four soldiers have died in combat, with more than a dozen injured, in this first significant deployment out of the zone in southern Iraq which the British have controlled since last year.

British forces have turned down American requests for support before, but agreed to this one for a strict time limit of 30 days in order to assist the American assault on Falluja.

The role of the Black Watch is to control the maze of roads on either side of the Euphrates River, stopping weapons and reinforcements going north to Falluja, and trying to intercept insurgents fleeing south.

The rich villas in fertile ground which border the river belong to Saddam loyalists, and there are indications that their tactics of rule by fear are still in place, which makes it easy for insurgents to move around and take on the British forces.

Mortar attacks

Tactics learnt in Northern Ireland had to be swiftly refined in the face of determined opposition from what one senior Army source described as an "unholy alliance of Baathists, secular, trained killers on the one hand and religious zealots on the other".

Soldiers digging in at Camp Dogwood
Camp Dogwood has come under almost daily attack
The enemy is able not only to mount mortar and rocket attacks on Camp Dogwood and on mobile Black Watch patrols, but suicide attacks.

It is the coolness of the attackers which has surprised the British, with suicide bombers prepared to wait patiently in slow moving traffic before detonating their bombs close to British soldiers.

In response, checkpoints are now mounted for a much shorter time, with the Black Watch soldiers moving on quickly in order to retain the element of surprise.

They have closed a number of roads, trying to siphon the traffic down a few routes which they can then control.

Any traffic which approaches checkpoints is monitored from 200 metres away before being allowed to approach.

Community patrols

But the Black Watch also need to know the countryside, and they are still going out into villages, in soft berets, with their distinctive red hackle on display, in order to try to win friends and identify enemies.

The Americans have done little patrolling here since they took Iraq last year, so the British are starting from scratch.

But the value of information gathered in just a few weeks is of dubious value.

A senior source said: "Of course we would know more if we were here for three months."

But this operation has a strict time limit, partly out of military necessity since the Black Watch have already extended their stay in Iraq to fulfil this commitment, and partly to fulfil promises made by Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon when he approved this controversial redeployment.



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