British troops in front line of conflict as polls approach

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The Independent Online

The bomb that exploded last week at the entrance of the British base at Shaibah in Iraq, injuring nine soldiers, had wide and grave significance.

The bomb that exploded last week at the entrance of the British base at Shaibah in Iraq, injuring nine soldiers, had wide and grave significance.

Islamist insurgents declared that the attack was in revenge for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops. It followed the publication of shocking photographs from the court martial in Osnabruck, and the murder of a British security worker, Andrew Whyte, 24 hours earlier.

But what has caused particular trepidation among the military is that it was a suicide bombing, widely prevalent in the "Sunni triangle", but virtually unknown in the south, and that it was claimed by a group led by the Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Sunni militants have been able to strike at the heavily defended heart of British military power in Iraq, a camp Tony Blair has visited twice, despite the heavy upgrading of security in the run-up to the polls.

The Black Watch battle group, which set off from Shaibah for deployment in support of the American assault on Fallujah, said they were "surprised" to be hit by suicide bombers in central Iraq. New tactics had to be adopted as the number of casualties mounted. The same measures are hurriedly being taken in the south, because the fact that the Shia population is expected to turn up in huge numbers to vote has made the British-controlled zone the front line.

Osama bin Laden and Sunni militant groups in Iraq have said that participation in the election will make Iraqis complicit in the occupation, and waves of bombings and shootings are expected in retribution. "The pictures emerging from the court martial are highly damaging in our relations with the Shias," said a senior British officer in Basra, "but the most immediate worry is Sunni attacks during the election.

"If it was a choice between bombing empty polling stations in central Iraq and people lining up to vote in the south, it is obvious what they would like to do. We have seen a steady rise in sectarian attacks and we expect this to get much worse."

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