TWO members of Bulford-based 4th Battalion The Rifles died within three days of each other in a black week in Iraq for the south Wiltshire regiment.

A highly respected company commander, Major Paul Harding, 48, from Winchester, died on Wednesday morning in a mortar attack in central Basra and then on Friday, Corporal John Rigby, from Rye, died from injuries he received when a roadside bomb exploded alongside his Bulldog vehicle.

Cpl Rigby, who was airlifted to a field hospital, died on his 24th birthday. His twin brother, Will, who also serves as a corporal in The Rifles, was at his bedside. Will, who said he had "lost his lifetime companion and soul mate," will accompany his brother's coffin back to the UK.

The two deaths bring the total casualties for the Journal-adopted 4 Rifles to four since the battalion arrived in Basra just over a month ago.

Maj Harding, regarded as "one of the fathers of The Rifles", was killed by enemy mortar fire at the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre in central Basra. He died instantly.

Cpl Rigby, 24, said to be "the most promising corporal of his generation", died in a field hospital after he was severely injured by the roadside bomb.

Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Sanders, commanding officer of 4Bn, told the Journal this week that the death of any soldier is a tragedy.

He said: "In death all are equal, but there are some whose loss is particularly hard to bear - the force of their personality, their personal and professional qualities and the love, respect and popularity they inspire set them apart.

"Corporal John Rigby was such a man. We are utterly heartbroken."

Cpl Rigby, who was single, was a section commander in B Company, commanding eight riflemen, but Lt Col Sanders said his "influence and fame extended the depth and breadth of the 700 men in The Rifles".

"He was by common consent the most promising corporal of his generation and only recently had been selected for promotion to sergeant.

"In my view, John was unquestionably a future regimental sergeant major and we have lost one of our very brightest and best."

Maj Harding, who was married with two sons, was chief of staff responsible for security, re-supply and the day-to-day running of the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre, described by a senior officer as a "small and very isolated outpost co-located with the Iraqi security forces in the centre of Basra".

Within days of his arrival Maj Harding was in action, when the outpost was attacked by more than 200 armed militia men intent on over-running it. But under Maj Harding's leadership, the small party of British troops fought off the attacks for four hours.

Lt Col Sanders said there were no words that could adequately do justice to Maj Harding.

He said he had lost a close friend, comrade and confidant and The Rifles had lost a deeply respected and loved company commander.

He said: "The Rifles has lost one of its most senior, long-serving and admired riflemen and the country lost a veteran soldier of deep personal integrity, professional excellence, wisdom, experience and simple decency.

"A rifleman with a lifetime of service in the Royal Green Jackets and most recently The Rifles, he had over the course of 30 years, risen from the rank of rifleman, through regimental sergeant major to his present rank of major.

"He is one of the fathers of the regiment."

Brigadier James Bashall, commander of 1 Mechanised Brigade, described Maj Harding as a "legend, a wonderful man and an outstanding soldier".

"He was a rock around which others took strength," said the brigadier.

The 4th Battalion, which the Journal adopted shortly before it left for a six-month tour of duty in Iraq, includes many young people from Salisbury and district and is a successor to the old Wiltshire Regiment.