Elusive enemy in battle of nerves with British forces

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The Independent Online

Maysan is the province where six Royal Military Policemen were cornered and killed within months of the "official" end of the war, and where there were pitched battles between British forces and Mehdi militia through last year's long, hot summer.

This is also the place where some members of the British forces have been accused of abuses and crimes against the local population, in the most high-profile of which seven paratroopers have been charged with the murder of an Iraqi youth, Nadhem Abdullah.

There have been more than 100 attacks on British forces in the past six months. Having lost several hundred men in conventional fighting, the militia have adapted their tactics, using sophisticated roadside bombs which have killed eight soldiers in southern Iraq, and which the British Government insists were supplied by Iran.

Yesterday came the disclosure by British military sources of the latest discovery of arms and explosives allegedly passing from Iran into Iraq, including 100kg of C4 plastic explosives and detonators. The discovery, it is claimed, was made by the Iraqi government's Department of Border Enforcement three miles from the frontier.

Roadside bombings, sniper attacks and the steady toll of casualties have caused immense frustration among British soldiers from the 1st Battalion, the Staffords Battle Group at Abu Naji. The enemy, says Captain Will Blackhurst, are cowardly. "They hide in shadows and then run away before you have the chance to capture, or, if necessary, kill them."

Cpl James Timperley saw three comrades die when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in July. "It is very difficult when you are facing this kind of attack and there is no one you can fire back on. We were shocked; these were our friends. This has been a hard, hard tour. I will be finishing in four days and I am in no hurry to get back to Iraq."

Cpl Timperley, however, remains his own man. Asked about Iranian involvement, he responds: "How do we know it is the Iranians? Isn't this is a bit of fingerpointing? Where is the proof?''

The memorial at Abu Naji speaks of a future where "the people of Maysan might enjoy a safe environment in which to rebuild their country".

Tomorrow should, in theory at least, see one of the first steps towards this future, with the referendum on the new constitution. Sunni leaders have been campaigning against it. Maysan in the Shia heartland should, on paper, return a resounding "yes".

Hamid Kassem, a 35-year-old market trader, had no doubt about his intentions. "Sistani [the Shia Grand Ayatollah] has told us to vote 'yes' and that is what I am going to do", he said. " Iraq is different now and everyone, including the Sunnis, must make adjustments."

* The barrister who helped free the Guildford Four from jail has been asked to defend Saddam Hussein. BBC1's Newsnight said Anthony Scrivener QC, a former chairman of the Bar Council, would travel to Iraq to represent the former dictator at his trial, due to start on 19 October. But a representative of his chambers said although Mr Scrivener had been approached, he had not yet taken on the job.