Marsh Arabs threaten to resist 'army of occupation'

On the edge of the Iraqi marshlands, guerrillas who fought Saddam Hussein's regime for years say they fear that Britain and the United States want to take away their weapons so that they can occupy Iraq for many years.

Al Sayyid Kadum al-Hashimi is a leader in the town of Majar al-Kabir, south of Amara, where six British soldiers were killed on Tuesday. He said yesterday: "It is the belief of people here, and it is believed by all other Iraqis, that the British want to disarm us so they can stay for a long time."

Guerrillas who resisted the Iraqi army for almost two decades, hiding out in the great reed beds of the Iraqi marshes, which Saddam tried to dry up by cutting drainage canals, say they are also prepared to fight against a permanent occupation by the US and Britain.

Abu Hatem Qarim Mahoud, famed in Iraq as a guerrilla leader and known as the "lord of the marshes", told The Independent yesterday that he hoped an agreement could be reached with the Allies about weapons. Intrusive searches by British troops had led to Tuesday's deadly four-hour gun battle, he said.

But Abu Hatem warned that Iraqis must not be excluded from power and "any programme for reconstruction without an interim Iraqi government will fail".

If there is further fighting around Amara, which is controlled by Abu Hatem, it will be embarrassing for the Allies because the Iraqi guerrillas, given their resistance record, cannot be portrayed as remnants of Saddam's regime. "Ours is the only city which liberated itself through its own efforts," said Ali al-Atiyah, one of Abu Hatem's aides.

Some of the guerrillas are more forthright than their leader about how they see the future. "We will put an end to this occupation with our weapons," said Maythem al-Mohammed Dawi, a lean-faced man with a submachine-gun who had been fighting in the marshes since 1998. "If we give up our arms how can we fight them?"

He said that Abu Hatem's men had always been pursued by the Iraqi army. They hid in reed shelters, always short of drinkable water and ammunition. As Saddam drained the marshes, destroying a culture that had existed for thousands of years, the guerrillas dug bunkers in the sides of dried up water courses.

Abu Hatem, a tall, impassive-looking 45-year-old dressed in a brown camel-hair cloak and a white headdress, is modest about his own power. Asked if he had an army of 8,000 men, he pointed to the table in front of him and said: "I just have this book and this pen."

After serving in the Iraqi army as a non-commissioned officer he was jailed in 1980 for seven years and on his release started his guerrilla organisation called Hizbollah (which is unrelated to the Lebanese "Party of God").

He captured Amara on 7 April ­ two days before the fall of Baghdad ­ but then received a call on his satellite phone from a CIA agent in Kuwait whom he called Dawud. He said: "When we were speaking, he gave me the order to leave the city within one hour."

Abu Hatem then called Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi writer, living in Washington who has many contacts within the US administration, asking him to use his influence to try to get the order reversed. By the time this happened, Amara had been thoroughly looted.

Firmly under Abu Hatem's control, life in the city is much more normal than elsewhere in Iraq, with no curfew ­ people and cars are allowed on the streets at night.

When the British soldiers were killed in Majar al-Kabir on Tuesday, Abu Hatem was in Baghdad seeing Paul Bremer, the head of the US administration in Iraq. He believed that the friction over searches between British troops and local people had been resolved by an agreement the day before the killings.

According to other sources, Abu Hatem rushed back to Majar al-Kabir where local leaders told him they feared the confiscation of weapons meant that the US and Britain would occupy Iraq for a long time. He told them that they should wait to see if the Americans and British made good on their promise of democracy. But he added that if there was a prolonged occupation, he would fight it and he asked them if they would support him. They said they would.

The atmosphere in Majar al-Kabir was tense yesterday. A crowd had gathered outside the police station where the four British soldiers died. A guard, provided by Abu Hatem's organisation, said: "It looks dangerous. Let's get out of here. We can't control the situation because our people are angry."

At the local council office, Mr Hashimi, speaking for the other leaders, said they were returning a burnt-out British vehicle and had been asked to hand over the suspected killers. But he added: "We don't know who they are because so many people were shooting."