British troops agree to suspend arms searches

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The Independent Online

The British military has ordered a suspension of weapons searches in the area of southern Iraq where six soldiers were killed, while a fundamental review takes place of the civilian population's right to carry arms.

The Army has agreed to a two-month "cooling-off" period in the town of Majar al-Kabir, near Amara, and this may be extended to other areas in an effort to defuse the rise in anti-British sentiment.

There is acknowledgement among defence staff that a lack of understanding of the local people contributed to the fatal confrontation on Tuesday in which six members of the Royal Military Police died.

The people of Majar al-Kabir deposed the local Baath regime without help from the British or Americans and there is a tradition of independence in the area. Some senior British officers believe this was not taken into account in attempts to disarm the population.

The British commander in Iraq highlighted the resentment about the disarming process when he said that the violence might have been sparked by people believing they were about to be searched.

Maj-Gen Peter Wall said: "The townspeople expected searches for weapons to be conducted by our patrols. That was not our intent and this had been explained to the town council at a formal meeting earlier in the week, when the strength of resentment to searches had become clear."

Members of the Royal Military Police were revealed yesterday to have radioed for help while besieged at the police station but it did not arrive in time. Maj-Gen Wall said: "British reserves did not get through."

An official MoD investigation into the killings in Majar al-Kabir will consider whether demanding that the civilian population disarm is justified.

A defence source said: "There is a realisation that asking people to give up their guns while the law-and-order situation does not improve is impractical and has led to a great deal of dissension. The idea of removing guns from the population is a sound one, but this has affected ordinary people who are not criminals, and we need to look at this whole matter very closely."

There is also concern about misjudgement of the mood in the British-controlled part of Iraq. Senior officials believe complacency had arisen because there had been no serious armed clashes between local people and the British.

But hostility towards the British has been rising recently, fuelled, it is claimed, by aggressive arms searches where dogs were used in houses and women's quarters and possessions searched. Both are offensive to Muslim sensibilities.

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