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Britain in home-hunt quagmire

Majjar (Iraq), June 25 (Reuters): Iraqis said today that anger over weapons searches in private homes triggered the killing of six British soldiers and the wounding of eight others in clashes around this southern Shia town this week.

But a British military spokesman in Iraq, Lt-Col Ronnie McCourt, said the killing of the six military police in Majjar yesterday was unprovoked, adding: “It was murder.”

Witnesses and residents said four Iraqis were killed and 14 wounded in the clashes in Majjar, 30 km south of the city of Amarah.

The British soldiers, training local police, were killed inside a police station, McCourt said near Amarah, 350 km southeast of Baghdad. He gave no other details.

In the second incident, seven troops were wounded when a helicopter was fired on as it went to aid a military convoy under attack. A British soldier in the convoy was wounded.

British forces denied they had issued a 48-hour ultimatum to local Iraqis to hand over the killers of the soldiers.

“I can categorically deny that ultimatum was ever set,” Captain Gemma Hardy, a press officer for British forces in Iraq, said. “That has not been issued.”

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said troops may have run into trouble as they tried to disarm local Iraqis.

“There is a background to do with the attempts by British forces to make sure the local population... were disarmed of those weapons,” Blair told parliament.

But Blair said it was too early to say what happened in Majjar, in what appeared to be the worst casualties suffered by British forces in a single “hostile fire” incident since the war to oust Saddam Hussein erupted on March 20.

Residents and witnesses said yesterday’s clashes followed days of resentment over efforts to disarm Iraqis, and the shooting erupted after the British forces fired plastic bullets to try to control thousands of protesters.

The witnesses said the Iraqis, believing the British were firing live bullets, fired AK-47 assault rifles, killing the soldiers.

“I yelled at them because they pointed their rifles at a child. I told them: ‘Don’t do that’ but a soldier hit me with the butt of his rifle in the face,” one resident, who refused to give his name, said.“Then the shooting started.”

Honeymoon over

The killing of six British soldiers has smashed the popular image of a “honeymoon” between benign UK occupiers and Shia inhabitants of southern Iraq who hated deposed former leader Saddam Hussein.

The killings were a wake-up call for the UK to the perils of policing post-war Iraq.

It also raised awkward questions about the oft-vaunted expertise and supposed “softly, softly” approach of British troops — proud to wear berets instead of the helmets preferred by US soldiers — towards Iraqi locals.

“So far we had been given the impression that the British troops are more sensitive, they get along with people, and they are not like the insensitive Yanks who have no idea,” UK-based West Asia expert Dilip Hiro said.

“But now I’m afraid that situation is changing.”

“Obviously there was a lack of preparedness,” said Bernard Jenkins, defence spokesman for the opposition Conservatives.

While British troops have been widely praised for their success in winning the hearts and minds of locals, their task was easier than the Americans’ in the first place because of historic Shia antipathy to Saddam. The US-controlled areas are largely dominated by Sunnis, from whom Saddam drew his ruling elite.

The reputation of British troops has also been tarnished by allegations of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners of war. Police arrested one soldier after pictures developed in a British photo laboratory appeared to show Iraqi prisoners being abused.

“This incident is worse than most of the bad days in Northern Ireland,” said Tim Ripley, of Lancaster University, referring to the decades-old conflict on their doorstep where UK troops gained plenty of experience policing hostile locals.

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