British forces hunt killers of troops in southern Iraq

Thursday, June 26, 2003

MAJAR AL-KABIR, Iraq -- British forces hunted on Wednesday for Iraqis who killed six of their colleagues during a shooting rampage in which gunmen overwhelmed a group of badly outnumbered military police -- including four cornered inside a police station.

But British troops stayed out of sight in this southern Shiite town, where residents are angry over the deaths of four Iraqis, allegedly at the hands of British soldiers.

The violence in Majar al-Kabir, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, shattered the peace that had reigned in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein -- and spurred British authorities to consider reinforcing its troop presence in Iraq.

Unlike recent attacks on U.S. forces near Baghdad -- blamed on remnants of Saddam's regime or the ousted dictator's Sunni followers -- the violence here came from Shiites enraged over the death of their neighbors and over weapons searches in homes with women.

"The people considered it an invasion of privacy," said Abu Zahraa, a 30-year-old vendor.

On Wednesday, the police station where most of the Britons were killed bore the marks of a gunbattle, with walls pocked full of bullet holes. Broken glass and bloodstains covered the floor.

The mayor's office -- where the day's unrest began with a protest that turned violent -- also showed signs of a siege, with grenade shrapnel in a bathroom and damage from an explosion on a sidewalk.

On Tuesday, about 100 residents protested the British weapons sweeps in a four-hour demonstrated outside the mayor's office, where a dozen British troops were posted, witnesses said. Protesters threw rocks, and British troops fired back with rubber bullets before switching to live ammunition, the witnesses said.

Local police and Iraqi witnesses said four Iraqis were killed, and that armed residents then killed two British military policemen.

Shortly afterward, the witnesses said, some Iraqis went to their homes to get weapons. At least 20 armed Iraqis stormed the police station, where four British military police were located along with Iraqi policemen.

One British soldier was shot and killed at the station's doorway; the three others were slain after Iraqis stormed the station and cornered them in a single room, said Salam Mohammed, a member of a municipal security force.

A British military spokes-man, Capt. Adam Marchant-Wincott, said he could not confirm the Iraqi witness accounts. He said he could not say whether the British forces had fired at demonstrators but added that they would do so only if their lives were threatened.

Iraqi revenge

Iraqi witnesses said the killings came in revenge for the Iraqi deaths. But British army Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt told Sky News TV the attack at Majar al-Kabir was unprovoked.

"The six military policemen who were trying to retrain the local police were murdered, as far as we're aware," McCourt said in Basra. "The enemies of peace have claimed that the United Kingdom forces are conducting violent searches of Arab homes and have not respected property. This is simply not true."

A separate attack Tuesday wounded eight British soldiers in Majar al Kabir, including seven who came under fire in a helicopter. Fifteen Iraqis also were wounded, witnesses said.

In the al-Zahrai Hospital in nearby Amarah, Dr. Mohammed al-Sudani said 10 Iraqi civilians were treated for gunshot wounds, including four children and a woman who was shot in the head.

Maitham Abbas, a 12-year-old boy, said he was shot in the shoulder as he stood in front of his school.

"I saw the blood and fainted. I fell on the ground," Abbas said, sitting on his hospital bed, his shoulder and arm bandaged.

On Wednesday, there were no British forces to be seen in or around Majar al-Kabir. But U.K. military officials said they were hunting down the gunmen.

"The whole situation is being investigated. We are actively seeking them," said Capt. Gemma Hardy, a British military spokeswoman.

British forces occupying southern Iraq agreed June 23 to stay out of Majar al-Kabir for 60 days and allow local security forces to seize heavy weapons, said Fadhel Radi, a municipal judge and an adviser to the mayor.

Radi said the British violated the agreement by coming into the city, sparking the initial demonstration. He produced a handwritten agreement in English and Arabic, supposedly signed by a British officer.

However, Hardy said she had no information about any such agreement and said it was "highly unlikely" it was valid. British officials said the military police were helping to train local police.

Southern Iraq had been so quiet recently that British troops frequently patrolled without helmets or flak jackets.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told lawmakers that the region around Amarah was tense because British soldiers had tried to disarm Iraqis who routinely carried weapons, including machine guns.

"There have been problems in relation to that and that may form part of the background to it," he said.

Blair also warned that supporters of Saddam's Baath party remain active, especially in the central and western parts of Iraq, where at least 18 U.S. soldiers have been killed in attacks since May 1.

The violence sparked a review of Britain's forces in southern Iraq, with Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon saying Britain could send more soldiers to Iraq and require them to wear helmets and body armor.

British forces in Iraq have been reduced from 45,000 during the war to 15,500 now, two-thirds of them ground forces. The United States has brought home some 130,000 troops from the region; 146,000 American forces remain in Iraq.

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