British forces in Iraq hunting for soldiers' killers

ALARM: The mob attack on UK troops shattered the peace that had reigned in southern Iraq and spurred authorities to reconsider their approach to governing

AP , MAJAR AL-KABIR, IRAQ

Fri, Jun 27, 2003 - Page 6

British officials are considering tightening security and sending more troops to Iraq after what they described as the unprovoked "murder" of six soldiers in an attack that highlighted rising resentment among Shiites over the country's occupation.

British forces were hunting for the Iraqi killers on Wednesday, a day after gunmen enraged by the alleged slaying of four civilians overwhelmed a group of outnumbered British military police in the southern town of Majar al-Kabir, 290km southeast of Baghdad.

Yesterday, mosque loudspeakers blared messages imploring townspeople to hand over weapons of the dead British soldiers.

"If you have the weapons hand them over to the Shiite town hall and your identity will not be revealed. If we don't get the weapons within 48 hours the British will enter the area," said a message from one mosque.

The attack shattered the peace that had reigned in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein -- and spurred British authorities to consider requiring troops to wear body armor and helmets.

"My absolute priority is the safety and security of British forces. Already, an urgent review is under way to ensure their safety," Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told BBC radio Wednesday.

Hoon said Britain had "significant forces available should it be necessary. Many thousands, certainly."

Recent attacks on US forces near Baghdad have been blamed on remnants of Saddam's regime or his Sunni followers, but this latest violence came in the mostly Shiite south, where resentment toward Saddam Hussein's government had been strong.

The Shiite gunmen were enraged by the death of their neighbors -- allegedly at the hands of British troops during a demonstration earlier in the day -- and over weapons searches in homes with women.

On Tuesday, about 100 residents protested the British weapons sweeps in a four-hour demonstration 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 said four Iraqis were killed, and that armed residents then killed two British military policemen. Then, 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.

British military spokesman in Iraq, Lieutenant-Colonel Ronnie McCourt, said the attack was unprovoked, adding, "It was murder."

"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," McCourt 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.

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

"The whole situation is being investigated. We are actively seeking them," said Captain Gemma Hardy, a British forces 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 that was supposedly signed by a British military 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.

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