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Weapons Searches May Have Sparked Attack

Resentment of the British had been building over the demand to turn in arms, which for many Iraqis are linked to honor.

June 26, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

MAJAR KABIR, Iraq -- Outside the police station where six British troops were shot to death, the only sign Wednesday of the bloody confrontation 24 hours earlier was several young men swaggering around with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders.

The armed men, like the incident Tuesday -- the deadliest for Western forces since the major portion of the Iraq conflict was declared over -- are a stark reminder of how difficult it will be for occupation forces to separate Iraqis from their guns.

In villages, towns and the major cities, Iraqis have been incensed by the demand of U.S.-led coalition forces that they give up their weapons, and the subsequent searches by troops to force the issue.

"For people here, the weapon is a part of their sense of honor," said Ali Atiya, a journalist with American-funded Radio Sawa who was in town when the shootings took place.

"A gun is a close friend, you use it on sad occasions, on happy occasions, on angry occasions," he said. "The villager uses his weapon to protect his cattle from wolves, his crops from pigs, and to defend his tribe from other tribes."

The confiscation of weapons also evokes painful memories of the regime of Saddam Hussein, who was particularly vicious in the Shiite Musliim areas of southern Iraq, where Tuesday's deadly firefight occurred. Residents say the incident, in which four Iraqis also died, raises suspicions that the coalition intends to occupy Iraq permanently.

"The Americans, the British, they said they came as liberators, but their actions prove the contrary. We want an Iraqi government, as soon as that government is established, we will hand over our weapons," said Ahmed Samir, 31, an engineer. Three of his family members were killed by Hussein's troops in the 1990s.

A military spokesman said Wednesday that British soldiers wanted to help the people of the area but that the violence was unacceptable.

"The six military police were murdered in the police station," said Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, a spokesman for British forces in southern Iraq. "We will not punish the general population -- that was Saddam Hussein's tactic. But we will seek those responsible and bring them to justice."

"The United Kingdom forces have worked hard for the people of Majar al Kabir and we have accomplished a lot, but there's a lot more to do. We cannot help the people of Majar rebuild if we are attacked."

An investigation is underway to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the shootings, and McCourt said it was too early to draw conclusions.

However, interviews with townspeople and witnesses offered a rough picture of what happened.

Resentment began building over the weekend after British troops went to Abu Ala, a village on the edge of Majar Kabir, and began a predawn house-to-house search for weapons. Residents said they were outraged by the intrusion; they charged that the troops used search dogs inside the houses, which, according to Muslim tradition, necessitates special cleaning in order for them to pray there again. They also said that women were searched and that some residents' dogs were shot.

McCourt insisted that the troops made every effort to be sensitive to people's cultural and religious mores. "We always conduct our operations with respect for the people of Iraq," he said.

"When you are conducting searches, you have to carry out certain procedures, and those might or might not involve dogs," he said.

Although only a fraction of the houses in the hamlet were searched, word spread quickly and fears arose that the same kinds of searches would be repeated in Majar Kabir. Fear of central authority runs high in these villages, which were among the most impoverished after the Hussein regime drained the rich marshland that covered the area.

When soldiers came to the town Monday, crowds of children gathered, some throwing tomatoes, others throwing stones. Townspeople and local leaders from Amarah, the largest nearby city, negotiated an agreement in which the troops would not search any houses in Majar Kabir for several weeks and allow local police to oversee the hand-over of major weapons.

However, Tuesday, the morning after the agreement was signed, about 20 British troops arrived and insisted on patrolling on foot.

"We told them the people would be very upset to see them but if they insisted on patrolling, they should use their vehicles because the operation would be over faster," said Adil Maliki, an electrical engineer, whose 28-year-old nephew, Taiser, was killed Tuesday by British fire.

As the troops walked down one of the main streets, hundreds of children swarmed around them, pelting them with stones. It is unclear whether Taiser Maliki was the first person killed. However, several witnesses said they saw a soldier aim his gun at a child and that as Maliki, a new father himself, moved to put himself between the soldier and the child, the soldier trained his sights on Maliki and pulled the trigger.

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