It began with some children throwing stones. It left a town turned into a battle zone and 10 people lying dead

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The Independent Online

It was nine o'clock on a hot and dusty morning in southern Iraq when six members of 156 Provost Company of the Royal Military Police arrived at the police station at Majar al-Kabir.

The soldiers were on a routine search for weapons, after British troops reached an agreement on house searches with the local leaders living on a plain south of Amara, about 210 miles south of Baghdad. But on Tuesday, their search set off a four-hour gun battle in which six British soldiers and four Iraqis were killed - the worst attack since the war on Iraq officially ended on 1 May.

Ali al-Atiyah, a senior lieutenant in a local militia that fought Saddam Hussein's government from hideouts in the marshes for a quarter of a century, said he knew there would be trouble when the British ignored the agreement negotiated with the tribesmen.

"They said they wanted to look at the type of weapons militiamen use," Mr Atiyah said. "They wanted to make a foot patrol. They were told 'it is unsafe for you to walk in the city, it is against the agreement. Maybe many problems will follow'."

At first the patrol heeded the advice, but then it started to move down the street. Soon children were throwing stones. The crucial moment came when one British soldier went into a firing position, pointing his weapon at a child. Mr Atiyah said: "A local man called Taissir Abdul Wahad thought the soldier was going to shoot and pointed his own gun and was shot dead by the soldiers. After the death of Taissir nobody could control their anger."

There is a certain amount of special pleading in this. Children may have started to throw stones but youngsters and adults soon swelled the crowd, which may have numbered 400. The first shot could have been fired from the crowd.

The soldiers then shot Taissir and another man dead. At this point, they were 300 to 400 yards from the village police station. Two soldiers were killed near the local agricultural college and the other four retreated to the police station.

Abbas Faddhel, an Iraqi policeman in the town, said angry townspeople fetched weapons and converged on the police station after the stone-throwing. One soldier was shot and killed in the building's doorway; three more were slain after gunmen stormed the police station and cornered them, said Salam Mohammed, 30, member of a municipal security force.

Mr Atiyah and another local leader called Faleh al-Sayid Sarwat travelled in an ambulance to try to rescue the four soldiers in the police station. But when they arrived the men were dead, and the number of dead Iraqis had risen to three. At least 13 Iraqis were wounded, one of whom died in hospital. Mr Atiyah and Mr Sayid told British Army officers what had happened before returning to collect the dead.

Mr Faddhel said that about two dozen Iraqi policemen who were at the station fled through a window during the battle.

As the shooting engulfed the town, Maitham Abbas, a 12-year-old boy, said he was shot in the shoulder as he stood in front of his school. "I saw the blood and fainted. I fell on the ground," he said at the hospital.

The area, 18 miles south of Amara, had become a battle zone. Earlier, a British Chinook helicopter had been hit by the local militia and eight soldiers were wounded.

There were no British troops in Majar al-Kabir yesterday. The police station is riddled with bullet holes and covered with broken glass and blood stains. The mayor's office also showed signs of a siege, with grenade shrapnel in a bathroom and damage from an explosion on the pavement.

A British military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Ronnie McCourt, said the killing of the six military police, who had been training the old Baathist police force, was unprovoked. "It was murder," he said.

Initial reports said yesterday that British forces had issued a 48-hour ultimatum to local Iraqis to hand over the killers of the soldiers, but this was denied later as the military attempted to portray the shootings as an isolated incident. The root cause of the attack on the soldiers was the anger of tribesmen at the aggressive searches - with the help of sniffer dogs - for arms. It was only the latest in a series of worsening confrontations between people in Majar al-Kabir and the British Army.

Ironically, tribesmen in this area, close to the marshlands of southern Iraq, were famous for their prolonged resistance to Saddam and his regime. They regarded the searches as particularly unfair because they had captured Amara on 7 April, well before Allied forces arrived in the city.

Their leader is Abu Hatem Qarim Mahoud, a 45-year-old charismatic guerrilla commander who fought Saddam's government. The effectiveness of the local militia may have come from their long years fighting the Iraqi army.

The gun battle on Tuesday had nothing to do with the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, or his supporters, who were always far and few between in this Shia stronghold. But it has demonstrated the danger of trying to disarm tribesmen or enter their homes to search for weapons, the possession of which they regard as a fundamental right.

Local residents complained about the use of dogs by the soldiers and alleged that they pointed weapons at women and children. "As Muslims, we can't accept dogs at our homes," Rabee al-Malki told Reuters. Muslims believe that the animals are impure.

Others alleged, as many do in Iraq, that the soldiers were disrespectful towards women. "A British soldier held the underwear of a woman and stretched it. How can we accept this as Muslims and as Shias?" said Faleh Saleem, who lives in Majar al-Kabir.

Tensions had been running high since the weekend, when soldiers went into a village called Abu Alla, Mr Atiyah said. "Most people there objected to the search operation because it's against the tribal principle of owning a gun. They are used for tribal celebrations, funerals, fighting other tribes, protecting their cows and sheep and, most important, for fighting Saddam. Children started to throw stones at British patrols and broke a windscreen," he said.

On Monday, the leaders of important familes in Majar al-Kabir reached an agreement with the British troops.

Written in English and Arabic, it said that British soldiers would not enter the town except in an emergency. Weapons such as heavy machine-guns, mortars, anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, grenades and weapons requiring more than one person to use them were declared banned. But it was also agreed there should be no searches for a month.

The agreement had a short life, Mr Atiyah said ruefully. He was surrounded by anti-Saddam guerrilla commanders to whom he occasionally turned to verify the facts.

The killings show the danger of trying to disarm Iraqis, something that Saddam never succeeded in doing. In the early 1990s he did try to buy up heavy weapons and one tribe near Amara sold him three tanks.

An official in Amara said: "Most of the Iraqi tribes - especially in southern Iraq - think that weapons are part of their life and are something holy. If they try to take them away again there will be trouble."

The US and British forces also appear to have underestimated the Iraqis' ability to fight after the swift defeat of the armed forces in the war. Iraqis say the the Allies' victory was easy because so few people in the country were willing to get killed for Saddam or his regime. Iraqis, such as the tribesmen around Amara, also have intense loyalties to clan, tribe and religious or ethnic community, which is usually greater than loyalty to the state.

Mysan province, of which Amara is the capital, is a politically perplexing place for the Allies. It is plastered with pictures of the martyred Shia cleric Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was murdered by Saddam in 1999.

Abu Hatem's party is called Hizbollah, but it has no connection with the Lebanese guerrilla movement that fought Israel for many years. The Hizbollah leaders say they are very sorry for what happened and they are loyal to the Allies. But there is visible anger when they say they were ordered out of Amara by the US as soon as they captured it on 7 April, which led to devastating looting before they were allowed to return. One guerrilla commander said sadly: "We were the only Iraqi city to liberate itself and now this happens."

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