Iraqi violence hits new peak for British troops

The bombing in the early hours of yesterday was just the latest example of the violence sweeping through British-run Shia southern Iraq which, until recently, was held up as a haven of peace and stability compared to the mayhem in Sunni areas.

The target yesterday was Hassan al-Rashid, former governor of Basra and the current strongman of the Iranian- supported Badr Brigade. But the British military, too, are very much in the firing line in what they say is the most dangerous period they have faced since the war, with attacks taking place weekly. Particularly lethal had been a new type of infra-red roadside bombs which have killed eight British soldiers and which, the British government claims, were supplied to Shia fighters by Iran.

The British military has taken measures to combat the devices. But, according to diplomatic sources, the militia too are trying to adapt their tactics.

Most of the attacks, however, are by rockets and mortars and launched from some distance away.

Standing on the top of the control tower at Basra aiport, the commander Group captain Ian Wood points to an area with several stationary aircraft "That's where we had machine gun fire yesterday, that's where some rockets went over yesterday as well. There is no doubt we have seen a steady rise in violence over the recent period as we approach some pretty important matters like Saddam Hussein's trial and then there is, of course, the referendum."

One of the reasons the airport is being attacked is that it will be the place where the ballot papers for the referendum will be delivered. The British base where the media are gathering to cover the vote was also hit by mortar fire at the weekend.

The referendum is bitterly contentious. It will pave the way for a federal constitution that the Shia believe will give them political and economic power for the first time in 100 years, and the Sunnis bitterly complaining that, in reality, it will lead to the break-up of the country.

With the recriminations has come an upsurge in bombings and shootings, much of it sectarian, shocking even by the anarchic standards of post-war Iraq.

The Iraqi government asked the populace yesterday to defy the insurgents who had called for a boycott. The insurgents have also warned that those who vote will suffer.

"These insurgents are like rats spreading plague among the people," said government spokesman Laith Kuba. "Rats are very small, but the disease they spread is horrible. Iraq should get rid of these dirty rats."

However, Mr Kuba also acknowledged that more than 500 corpses have been found in Iraq since its interim government was formed April. About 320 others have been killed in a wave of suicide bombings, roadside blasts, drive-by shootings and beheadings. "Combating the killing of innocent civilians is now the nation's number one challenge", he said.

Two US soldiers were killed at the weekend in western Iraq, bringing to eight the number of American fatalities in a series of offensives the US and Iraqi forces have launched against insurgents in preparation for the referendum.

A "yes" vote in the referendum and the subsequent federal constitution will lead to a fundamental shift of power to the Shia south with its lucrative oilwells. And, with the high stakes involved, the region is now an amphitheatre for heavily armed militias fighting each other as well as the British forces.

It was unclear last night who was responsible for the attempt to kill Mr al-Rashid, whose Badr Brigade is the military wing of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution, (SCIRI), the largest Shia party in the government.

The Jordanian-born leader of the Sunni group al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has threatened to "eradicate"the "apostates" of the Badr Brigade. But Badr fighters have also been skirmishing with the al-Mehdi Army led by the radical Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Adding to the combustible mix is the shadowy Jameat organisation, a group with several hundred police officers among its members, who are accused of running death squads and who recently held two British special forces soldiers - an act which led to a British rescue mission.

Men in police uniforms have been responsible for the murders of a number of journalists, including American Stephen Vincent.

Sunnis complain that in the south they are the victims of ethnic killings.

Sheikh Abdul Karim al-Dosari, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said " Every week, there are one or two incidents where the police come to arrest people and then we find their bodies."

The Shia also complain of kidnapping and extortion. A Basra businessman, Hakim, said " They say they are policemen and they come and demand money, we know they are connected to the militias.

"They are policemen but they kill people. The British must bear much blame, they let these people into the police and then for a long time did nothing."

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