The New York Times
June 27, 2003

Militia Trained in Iran Controls a Tense Town


MAJAR AL KABIR, Iraq, June 26 _ The Badr Brigade, a militia group whose members trained in Iran during the long rule of Saddam Hussein, controls this town of 50,000 people where six British soldiers and four Iraqis were killed in a firefight this week, residents said today.

Officials in Washington have said that United States intelligence reports indicate that the Badr forces _ based and trained in Iran during Mr. Hussein's rule _ have set up headquarters and tried to recruit supporters in towns in southern Iraq, and that fighters who have returned to Iraq from Iran have shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian populations.

In Majar al Kabir, less than 50 miles from the Iranian border to the east, the militia is armed and occupies the police compound where the soldiers, members of the British Royal Military Police, were killed on Tuesday.

Two of about eighMilitia Trained in Iran Control.ems t armed men in the police compound today said they had recently come from Iran.

One, Hussein Ashayer, 30, said he had spent five years there, sneaking into Iraq several times on unspecified missions. When asked what he had done in Iran, he was interrupted by the militia's leader, Abed Salaam, who said in Arabic, "Don't tell everything."

Mr. Ashayer said he had been a farmer.

The Badr Brigade, which American officials say has received training from the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, is the armed group associated with the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exile group founded in Tehran in 1982 and headed by the Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim. He returned to Iraq from Iran in May, traveling first to nearby Basra, where he insisted that he did not seek any extreme form of Islamic state.

Majar has long been a center of festering resistance to Mr. Hussein, whose government angered tribal marsh Arabs here by draining nearby marshes in retaliation for a 1991 uprising in southern Iraq. The region's residents also said they had a long tradition of prizing firearms, and that they would fight rather than give up the weapons they routinely carry and keep in their homes.

In his first public statement since the deaths, Maj. Gen. Peter Wall, the commander of the British forces in Iraq's southern region, acknowledged today that the townspeople had been resentful of British soldiers trying to force new weapons restrictions. But General Wall denied complaints from residents after Tuesday's fatal firefight that the British had violated Iraqi custom by entering homes or searching women, saying only storage or nonresidential buildings had been searched.

He said the British had agreed to stop searching for weapons and had not intended to conduct searches on Tuesday, but that message had not reached the public.

"This was much more about the fact of removing weapons than the mode of searching," he said. "As far as they were concerned, we were putting them in a far moMilitia Trained in Iran Control.ems re repressive situation than the previous regime."

General Wall said that the British agreed on Monday to suspend the searches, and had entered the town on Monday only for a routine street patrol, but that people grew angry because they believed the troops were violating the agreement.

On Tuesday morning, the general said, two British patrols set out for Majar. The first, a group of military policemen, was to stop by the police station, where they had been training officers. The second, a group of paratroopers, was supposed to patrol the town in cooperation with the militia group, he said.

Mr. Salaam said his members had refused to patrol with the British because they felt that the British were violating a promise not to enter the town. But a handwritten agreement that Majar officials said had been signed by the British mentioned only a suspension of weapons searches, not an agreement to stop patrols.

Witnesses said on Wednesday that they had seen a boy throw a tomato at one of the paratroopers, who in turn pointed his gun at the child. Talal Ahmad Abed Alzubaide, 31, stepped between them only to be hit with the soldier's gun, they said. He has a small wound on his left cheek that he says came from the gun.

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