SCOTTISH troops fixed bayonets and fought hand to hand with a Shi’ite militia in southern Iraq in one of their fiercest clashes since the war was declared more than a year ago, it was reported last night.
Soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders mounted what were described as "classic infantry assaults" on firing and mortar positions held by more than 100 fighters loyal to the outlawed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, according to military sources.
At least 20 men from al-Sadr’s army were believed killed in more than three hours of fighting - the highest toll reported in any single incident involving British forces in the past 12 months.
Nine fighters were captured and three British soldiers injured, none seriously.
"It was very bloody and it was difficult to count all their dead," one source was quoted as saying. "There were bodies floating in the river."
The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were drawn into the fighting when soldiers in two Land-Rovers were ambushed on Friday afternoon about 15 miles east of the city of Amara. The soldiers escaped, only to be ambushed a second time by a larger group of militia, armed with machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
Reinforcements were summoned from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment at a base nearby. "There was some pretty fierce hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets fixed," the source added. "There were some classic assaults on mortar positions held by the al-Sadr forces."
Official spokesman Major Ian Clooney confirmed the Mehdi army "took a pretty heavy knocking", but refused to specify tactics. "This was certainly an intense engagement," he added.
Details of the bloody clashes emerged amid reports that defence chiefs were privately discussing "strategic failure" in the conflict - and that MPs were trying to force a new Commons vote on the situation in Iraq.
Labour MPs, including Robin Cook, were said to be pressing Tony Blair to allow a new vote if he goes ahead with plans to send more troops to Iraq to replace the Spanish forces which are set to be pulled out. They claim no more troops should be sent until the government has won a new mandate for action via another vote in Parliament.
The Prime Minister is believed to be resisting the claims, fearing a repeat of the gruelling battle over the vote last year which endorsed the plan to attack Saddam Hussein, but only after a bitter argument which cost him the votes of 139 MPs.
News of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders action comes as military top brass struggling to maintain the huge Coalition operation in Iraq have been confronted with a disturbing fall in public support for the armed forces.
Results of a suppressed opinion poll commissioned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have shown a worrying decline in public confidence in the forces during the last year, as Britain has become bogged down in Iraq.
The attitudes survey, conducted by leading pollsters Mori and seen by Scotland on Sunday, suggests that the nation remains supportive of front-line forces. But it lays bare a decline in support for senior officers, who are charged with ensuring the forces are adequately equipped to protect British interests at home and abroad.
Those unhappy with the department’s performance cited in particular recent controversies including the row over the supply of vital equipment, the Deepcut ‘suicides’ investigation, and the Hutton inquiry into the death of government scientist Dr David Kelly.
The disturbing report, which the MoD tried to keep quiet by not publishing when it was completed, shows public support for one of the most vital arms of government slumped from 74% to 59% between January and December last year.
Mori’s findings are made particularly worrying by the fact that almost half of the 2,000-plus adults questioned admitted they had close working connections with either the MoD or the armed forces.
The damning report has emerged at one of the most critical points in the recent history of the British forces, as ministers struggle to deal with unprecedented military commitments around the world against the backdrop of looming cuts in its annual budget.
A senior MoD source last night admitted the impending disclosure of the revelations could "take the gloss off" the department’s satisfaction over the confirmation that pictures allegedly showing British troops abusing Iraqi civilians had been proved fake.
FOUR arrests have been made by military police investigating allegations that British troops abused Iraqi prisoners, it emerged last night.
All four people were released. A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said:
"No charges have been made against any individual and no individuals are currently in custody."
The arrests were not thought to be related to the faked abuse photographs that were published in the Daily Mirror.