A town with a reputation for violence - but invading forces walked straight in

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The Independent Online

Amara has always had a reputation for violence, even among Iraqis. An impoverished Shia town, it is a popular haunt of smugglers and bandits.

Some of the most ferocious battles of the Iran-Iraq war were fought just to the east of Amara and Saddam Hussein drained the marshes to the south because his army was unable to penetrate the swamps to root out guerrillas.

But to the Allied forces who arrived there in April, Amara, the capital of Maysan province, must have seemed relatively straightforward. The Baathist pro-Saddam administration had fled in early April. Finding the town already under the interim control of Shia militiamen, British commanders took the unusual step of using the local fighters to man five checkpoints surrounding the city.The British allowed the former police chief to resume his job in April and by late April had coaxed back at least 100 of his 4,000 officers. They were allowed to take up their old uniforms and weapons and were manning traffic points and conducting armed patrols with British soldiers and the Royal Military Police.

The position of the Amara police chief, a brigadier general in the regime, was helped when the local police force voted to end its support for the regime soon after the war started in March. The 16th Air Assault Brigade to which the RMP units were attached had gone out of its way to share civil responsibilities with a 21-member regeneration committee made up of clerics, tribal leaders and a handful of members of the former regime.

British officers acknowledged at the time that some Shia leaders in outlying villages had remained unfriendly to the incoming troops. The town was also one of the places where there was an unconfirmed sighting of Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, and a close associate of Saddam.

The soldiers and RMP units at Amara are among the most skilled in the Army and had made strenuous efforts to get on terms with local civic leaders, using local or Army Arabic speakers to interpret wherever possible.

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