A promise of amnesty for Iraqis who voluntarily gave up their weapons has been "remarkably unsuccessful," British defense sources admitted on Sunday.
Britain and the US concede that to get Iraqis to give up their rifles, mainly Kalashnikovs, is an impossible task for the forseeable future. The amnesty was designed to get them to hand over heavier weapons, including machineguns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
However, this has failed and is unlikely to make any headway until Iraqis feel secure, a prospect which at present is not even on the horizon, defense sources say. Military commanders also make it clear that they are angry at the failure of British and American civil agencies to deliver on promises to restore or renew Iraq's infrastrucure, notably power and water supplies.
That, they say, is fuelling resentment among ordinary Iraqis, and increases the influence of groups with their own extreme political or religious agendas.
Members of the army's special investigations branch have flown to southern Iraq to reinforce the team investigating the death of six Briitish military policemen at Majar al-Kabir last week.
British Ministry of Defence sources said yesterday it was still too early to establish why the soldiers were not rescued or helped by paratroopers who succeeded in rescuing some of their men who were also attacked by a group of armed Iraqis last Tuesday morning.
Defense sources said it is unclear whether the Iraqis were members of a Shia group, or a Sunni group from the north of the country, or even whether they were simply responding to British soldiers carrying out weapons searches, which have fuelled resentment about the slow pace of rebuilding the infrastructure.
However, senior British military officers say there is no evidence of the "start of a general uprising" and point out that many Iraqis in the town, including community leaders, had expressed deep regret at the deaths, and some had helped retrieve the bodies of the six military policemen.
UK's Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has told commanders on the ground that he would send in reinforcements if they wanted them.
So far, they have said they do not.
Some 500 troops in full body armor, protected by two helicopters and several armored personnel carriers, re-entered Majar al-Kabir at the weekend for the first time to investigate last Tuesday's deaths.
The troops were drawn from a number of units, including the military police and the First Battalion the Parachute Regiment, seven of whose soldiers were wounded last Tuesday.
Defense sources insisted they were not seeking retribution, and they were met by a group of Shiite clerics and prominent town officials in a peaceful ceremony aimed at putting the acrimony in the past.
Their presence was supported by a group of locals who staged a march demanding that British soldiers remain on the streets to maintain law and order.
A ministry spokesman said: "The force went in to search for any forensic evidence which will help the investigation into the deaths. They will probably start at the police station where the men died."
Troops would also re-establish connections with the local authority and complete repairs to a water treatment plant and a paper mill. The spokesman said the military presence had not been stepped up following last Tuesday's incident and the number of troops in the town was roughly the same.