Black Watch: The betrayal of a regiment

Key points

• Black Watch move to battle

• Doubts still remain over regiment's future existence, however

• Blair offers little reassurance to troops

Key quote

"an untimely and foolish proposal" - Nicholas Soames, Conservative shadow defence secretary, on the defence cuts.

Story in full THE Black Watch yesterday began the move north towards Baghdad that will take them into one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq, uncertain of whether those who make it home will still have a regiment to call their own.

For the soldiers who have been asked to take on the insurgents in the notorious Sunni Triangle, the only certainty is that they face a torrid couple of months. After that, thanks to the government’s plans to cut the size of the army and create one Scottish super regiment, their future is up in the air.

And yesterday Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, could only add to the misery of the Scottish regiments by offering vague assurances that a final decision had not been taken on their future, then apparently backtracking for all he was worth.

That is why The Scotsman today launches a campaign to save not just the Black Watch, but all the threatened Scottish regiments and to impress on the government the growing public anger over its plans.

The campaign reflects the fury over the government’s plans to reward the regiments for their service in Iraq by putting an end to hundreds of years of history as independent fighting units.

When Tony Blair spoke yesterday, there was a glimmer of hope that the government might at last be prepared to acknowledge the strength of public feeling by rethinking its decision.

"We are well aware of the strong feeling on the Scottish regiments," Mr Blair said. "Believe me, we are very well aware of it. We will listen to that feeling."

Mr Blair tried to pin the blame for the decisions on the army, but suggested that there may yet be a chance that the cuts decision will be reversed.

"The reorganisation of the regiments is actually coming from proposals made by the army," he said, adding: "No decisions have been taken on this, finally."

Asked if that meant it was still possible that the six regiments could survive as independent units, Mr Blair replied: "Of course the options are open."

But having raised the prospect of a reprieve, the Prime Minister then appeared to back-track.

"It is not right for people to say the government is about to make a different decision," he said. "We also have to take the right decisions for the whole of the armed forces."

Downing Street later provided a little clarification of the Prime Minister’s apparently contradictory statements.

"All he was doing was pleading for a bit of patience until the decision is taken," a spokesman said.

The Black Watch has been deployed outside southern Iraq for the first time in support of an expected new United States offensive against militants in Fallujah.

The size of the task facing the regiment was made clear yesterday when it emerged that nearly 350 tons of explosives had disappeared from a military site south of Baghdad.

The explosives include HMX and RDX, which feature in the kind of charges often used by terrorists in attacks on coalition forces in Iraq.

John Kerry, the Democratic US presidential candidate, said that by allowing the material to go missing, President George Bush had committed "one of the greatest blunders" of his time in office.

In parliament, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, was vague about the prospects of sending more troops to Iraq if there was a need for a British presence in the Sunni Triangle beyond Christmas.

"That does depend entirely on the security situation on the ground there and on the events that they have to deal with," he said.

While Mr Blair and his ministers prevaricated, opposition politicians lost no opportunity to twist the knife.

Nicholas Soames, the Conservatives’ shadow defence secretary, said that the increased demands being made on British troops in Iraq showed that the restructuring plan was "an untimely and foolish proposal".

• Sign The Scotsman's petition to save Scotland's regiments

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