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U.K. Demands Surrender of Iraqi Gunmen

June 25, 2003

MAJAR AL-KABIR, Iraq (AP) _ An angry Iraqi crowd killed six British soldiers because the troops had slain four Iraqi civilians during a demonstration, police said Wednesday, a day after the shootings.

British forces gave civilian leaders in this town 48 hours to hand over the killers of the troops, a municipal official said.

Armed Iraqis killed two of the British soldiers at the scene of the demonstration _ in front of the mayor’s office _ and then stormed a police station and killed four other British soldiers after a two-hour gunbattle, a pair of Iraqi policemen said.

The violent demonstration was the second in two days, apparently sparked by British soldiers’ searches for heavy weapons in homes, said Abu Zahraa, a 30-year-old vendor.

``This angered the people because they went into women’s rooms,″ Zahraa said. ``The people considered it an invasion of privacy.″

The incident had raised fears that attacks against coalition troops were spreading to previously calm areas, such as southern Iraq.

It also sparked a review of Britain’s forces in southern Iraq, with Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon saying Wednesday that Britain could send more soldiers to Iraq and require them to resume wearing helmets and body armor like their American counterparts.

``I know that there was some tension in this particular town,″ he told British Broadcasting Corp. television. ``That arises out of the fact that it is routinely the case in a number of these southern towns for people to be armed and indeed for people to have quite heavy weapons, including machine guns.″

He said an ``urgent review″ was underway and that reinforcements were ready if needed to ensure the safety of troops.

``Depending on the results of that review ... we have significant forces available should it be necessary. Many thousands, certainly,″ Hoon said.

British military officials were meeting with seven members of the city’s administrative council in the nearby town of Amarah, seeking the killers’ surrender, said Qassem Nimeh, an official in the mayor’s office in Majar al-Kabir.

Nimeh did not say how they would respond if the attackers were not handed over before the 48-hour deadline.

``We hope that we’ll be able to bring those who are guilty of these attacks to justice,″ L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday.

A second incident on Tuesday also involved a fierce firefight between Iraqis and British troops occupying southern Iraq. That gunbattle wounded eight British soldiers, three of them seriously.

The day’s violence began when British soldiers fired rubber bullets _ and then live ammunition _ at demonstrators in Majar al-Kabir who railed against the presence of British forces in the city, Zahraa said.

He said the British had formally agreed a day earlier to let local police patrol the city.

Accounts differed on where the four Iraqi civilians were killed. Some said British soldiers killed all four during the demonstration; another account said two unarmed protesters were killed during the demonstration and two other civilians were killed in the gunbattle at the police station.

After the deaths at the scene of the demonstration, angry townspeople fetched weapons from their homes, converged on the police station and attacked British soldiers, said Abbas Faddhel, an Iraqi policeman in the town.

One British soldier was shot and killed at the station’s doorway; the other three were slain after Iraqi gunmen stormed the station and cornered them in a single room, said Salam Mohammed, 30, member of a municipal security force.

On Wednesday, the station bore the marks of a large gunbattle, with walls full of bullet holes. Broken glass and dried blood stains covered the floor.

A British military spokesman, Capt. Adam Marchant-Wincott, said he could not confirm the Iraqi witness accounts. He said, however, that it was possible that there had been an agreement between British forces and local police allowing the locals to take over security for the city.

Marchant-Wincott said he could not say whether the British forces had fired at demonstrators but added that they would do so only if their lives were threatened.

Faddhel said that there were about two dozen Iraqi policemen at the station who fled through a window during the gunbattle. Two were wounded. Faddhel said the Iraqi police asked the British military police to flee with them but the British insisted on staying.

In another attack, an oil pipeline was sabotaged Tuesday near Hadithah, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, an Iraq oil ministry official said.

Television reports Wednesday showed oil flooding into palm groves and the Euphrates River. The official, who asked not to be named, said saboteurs broke valves on the pipeline, causing the oil to spill.

It was the latest in a series of attacks against Iraq’s power and oil infrastructure that has set back reconstruction efforts and increased blackouts in Baghdad.

The violence at the police station came in the mostly Shiite south, where resentment toward Saddam Hussein’s government had been strong. There had been no substantial attacks there against U.S. or British forces since the end of the war, and British troops in the city of Basra had felt so secure that they had stopped wearing helmets and flak jackets.

The U.S. military said Tuesday there had been 25 attacks on coalition forces over a 24-hour period, including a firefight in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, that killed four Iraqis and wounded two American soldiers and two Iraqis.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, called the pro-Saddam forces ``dead-enders″ and said coalition troops were making progress against them.

``Just as they were unable to stop the coalition advance in Baghdad, the death squads will not stop our commitment to create stability and security in postwar Iraq,″ Rumsfeld said at the daily defense department briefing on Tuesday.

Majar al-Kabir is a mostly Shiite city about 180 miles southeast of Baghdad and just south of the city of Amarah.

Mohammed said the British military police, involved in training their Iraqi counterparts, had visited the police station to distribute new identification documents to the town’s Iraqi police.

Elsewhere in the same town, a ``large number″ of Iraqi gunmen opened fire on a British patrol Tuesday with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and rifles, Hoon said. The British returned fire, and one British soldier was wounded in the fight.

A rapid reaction force, including Scimitar light tanks and a Chinook CH-47 helicopter, came to help the ground troops but also came under fire, Hoon said. Seven people on board the helicopter were wounded, three of them seriously, the government said.

Hoon said commanders were investigating whether the earlier deaths and the later ambush were connected.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, extended condolences to the families of the dead soldiers.

``These losses are a reminder that Iraq remains a dangerous place,″ Myers said at the Pentagon. ``But we must continue to stand firm.″

It was the deadliest day for coalition forces since May 19, when six U.S. Marines died, most in a helicopter crash and a vehicle accident.

Saddam loyalists, Sunnis and ex-army soldiers are suspected in the attacks. The Shiite-dominated south has been largely peaceful since the regime’s fall. The Muslim sect had been long repressed by Saddam.

Forty-two British troops have died _ 19 in accidents _ since the war began March 20. Britain had suffered no confirmed combat deaths since April 6.

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