Army: It was murder
By Robert Fox in Basra and Valentine Low, Evening Standard
25 June 2003
Six British soldiers were murdered by a frenzied Iraqi mob in an unprovoked attack, the Army said today.
The Royal Military Police officers were shot dead after trying to quell a demonstration in the town of Majar al Kabir yesterday. Three of the men were cornered in one room. Iraqis claimed that the "Red Caps" - based in Colchester - were hunted down after firing into the crowds which had gathered to protest at heavy-handed searches by British troops in the area 90 miles north of Basra.
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But British forces denied they had provoked the attack and today gave local leaders 48 hours to hand over the Iraqi men responsible. Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie McCourt said: "This attack was unprovoked. It was murder."
Faced with thousands of angry demonstrators the soldiers fired plastic bullets. The Iraqis returned fire with live rounds from AK-47s, killing two soldiers on the spot at the scene of the demonstration outside the mayor's office.
They then chased the four other members of the patrol to a nearby police station, where they too were killed after a two-hour siege. The killings were the British military's worst death toll on a single day since the first Gulf War in 1991.
Security measures to protect troops in Iraq were being stepped up this afternoon.
Today the police station at Majar al Kabir bore the marks of a large gun battle with walls pocked full of bullet holes. Broken glass and dried blood stains covered the floor.
There were reports that two dozen Iraqi policemen at the station asked the military policemen to flee with them but the British insisted on staying.
Witnesses in Majar al Kabir said the violence came after days of tension because of methods used to search civilians for weapons. "These British soldiers came with their dogs and pointed weapons at women and children," said one villager. "As Muslims, we can't accept dogs at our homes."
Residents said British soldiers first came to the town to search for weapons on Saturday. They burst into houses with dogs sniffing for weapons and with guns pointing at women and children.
After complaints from locals the British force agreed to halt the intrusive inspections, but two days later they returned with the same attitude, the residents said.
The Iraqis asked to stop the searches and promised to hand over weapons within two months, they said. When the soldiers returned yesterday thousands took to the streets to protest.
"I yelled at them because they pointed their rifles at a child. I told them 'don't do that' but a soldier hit me with the butt of his rifle in the face," said one resident. "Then the shooting started."
Another said: "We will do the same if the British come back. We will not allow them to come back."
Downing Street declined to be drawn into the claims and counter claims about the incident. But No10 said, however, that it "did not recognise the picture of events" being painted by those claiming that house-to-house searches had set off the violence. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said substantial troop re-inforcements could soon by on their way to Iraq. He hinted that up to 5,000 more troops might be sent.
Mr Hoon insisted that the peacekeeping operation in Iraq had not got out of control. He said: "We have had remarkable success across southern Iraq. We have not had this kind of incident before."
The dead soldiers were members of 156 Provost Company, RMP, based in Colchester and attached to 16 Air Assault Brigade, Army sources said today. They were in the area to train a local Iraqi police force. Senior British officers were today meeting Majar al Kabir's council in the nearby city of Amarah to demand the surrender of the Iraqi gunmen.
Tony Blair paid tribute to the men killed: "They were Royal Military Police doing an extraordinary and heroic job in trying to bring normal and decent life to people in Iraq, and the whole country, and their families, can be immensely proud of them, even as they mourn them." The Iraqi National Congress also condemned the attacks on the British troops. Dr Ahmad Chalabi insisted the " overwhelming" majority of Iraqi people remained grateful to the coalition for removing Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athist regime.
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