The British Army offered an apparent amnesty yesterday to those responsible for the deaths of six Royal Military Police officers in southern Iraq.
Helicopters dropped leaflets on the town of Majar al-Kabir, promising: "We will not return to punish anyone since these are the methods of Saddam's regime. Coalition forces are sorry for the loss of the people of Majar ... we will return to Majar to make good relations with you and all the people."
The leaflets were distributed after British officers had consulted a local civic leader, Abu Hatem Qarim Mahoud.
Any suggestion that the killers remain unpunished is likely to lead to an angry reaction in Britain. The parents of one of the dead men accused the Army of putting their son and his comrades at risk.
The developments came at the end of the most violent week in Iraq since the end of the war, with 12 British, American and Iraqi deaths, and 20 injured.
The state of near-anarchy in the country was highlighted by police officers in Britain, who concluded that it was too dangerous to send officers to Iraq to help. Paul Kernaghan, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told Jane's Police Review: "I would not like to see British police on the streets of Baghdad because it is too dangerous."
At the same time, Kroll, a corporate security group, in a report on commercial investment prospects in Iraq, warned there was a chance that the country may descend into open revolt.
Major-General Peter Wall, the British commander in Iraq, said the soldiers cornered in a police station had put in an emergency radio call to headquarters for help at least half an hour before they were killed, but "British reserves did not go through".
An Iraqi witness claimed yesterday that some of the military police were killed as they pleaded for their lives, showing photographs of family members to gunmen. Ali al-Atiyah said: "The soldiers showed the photographs because they wanted to say, 'We are just like you. Look, we have wives and children too.' They must have hoped this would save them, but it did not."
Reg Keys, father of Lance Corporal Thomas Keys, 20, said at his home in north Wales: "It is not clear, but it would appear that they sent these six young men into a police station to do a job in a hostile country, with hostile elements, with very, very little support around them. To think that they could get trapped with no immediate support to call upon is of some concern to me." L Cpl Keys' mother, Sally, said: "It was a waste of my beautiful boy."
The Ministry of Defence said that the "amnesty" offer was a misunderstanding. A spokesman said: "I have not seen the leaflets, but I think what we were trying to convey was that we would not take retribution on the whole community as would have happened at the time of Saddam. Obviously as a part of the reconstruction process we must get to the bottom of what happened, including the deaths."
Since demanding in the immediate aftermath of the killings that the local community hand over the killers, the Army has been attempting to defuse the situation. The demands have not been repeated, and weapons searches, which allegedly provoked the fatal confrontation, have been suspended for two months.
But more than two and a half months after the fall of Baghdad, violence against Allied forces has continued to grow. One American soldier was killed yesterday in southern Iraq, and there were reports of a second death in the Iraqi capital. The killing in Baghdad reportedly took place in a DVD shop. The owner of the shop said: "He took out dollars from his pocket and as I looked at the money, I heard a bang. Two other soldiers came in, picked him up and took him away."
Meanwhile, the US military said it had seized three Iraqis in connection with the disappearance of two US soldiers earlier this week.
The Americans were guarding the perimeter fence of a rocket demolition site near the town of Balad, 25 miles north of Baghdad. Despite extensive aerial and ground searches neither the soldiers nor their Humvee vehicle have been found. The search was launched after they failed to answer their radios.
Seven days of conflict
Two soldiers wounded after running over a landmine in the town of Hit. Demonstration, calling for elections and release of prisoners led by Sheikh Ahmad al-Zirzawi al-Baghdadi.
One soldier was killed and another was injured in a grenade attack on American forces travelling in a convoy south of Baghdad. An Iraqi gas pipeline, above, was also sabotaged by arsonists.
Six Iraqis injured in clashes with US troops in Baghdad. The Pentagon admits five Syrian border guards were injured when US troops were in action intercepting an Iraqi convoy on 18 June.
Six members of the Royal Military Police's 156 Provost Company killed in Majar al-Kabir. Eight more British soldiers injured in an ambush, and a Quick Reaction Force in a Chinook is also attacked.
Two US soldiers abducted from an observation post near the town of Balad, 25 miles north of Baghdad. Massive power outage in Baghdad after electricity supply, is cut off by saboteurs.
One US serviceman killed and eight injured in a firefight near Baghdad. A soldier is killed in Najaf while investigating a theft. Another died and a second was injured by an explosion near Baghdad airport.
An American soldier is shot while shopping at a DVD store in Kazhimiyah, north-west Baghdad. American forces make three arrests in connection with Wednesday's border post raid.Reuse content