Accounts Suggest 6 Massacred British Soldiers Were Fleeing an Angry Crowd
By SHAILA K. DEWAN
MAJAR AL KABIR, Iraq, June 25 _ Details began to emerge today about the fighting that led to the deaths of six British soldiers and four Iraqis on Tuesday in the center of this town in southern Iraq.
The gunfire erupted along Majar's main street on Tuesday, hitting people in the market and children on their way to school. More than 15 Iraqis were wounded, according to doctors here and in nearby Amara, where many of the injured were sent.
As the Iraqis buried their dead today, one doctor said the shots had been "obviously random." One of the dead was an ambulance driver shot in the chest at the door of his house as he returned from his shift, doctors said. One of the injured was a child with a bullet lodged in his shoulder.
A British official who had been briefed by the commander of the military police in the region said it appeared that the British soldiers who were killed had been trapped by an angry mob and had tried to retreat into the police station, but were shot there. The official, who asked not to be identified, said all the bodies had multiple bullet wounds.
Nearly 36 hours after the event, the facts remained hazy and it was unclear who had fired the first shots. A British spokesman at the military headquarters in Basra said he would not take questions. Tensions between townspeople and British forces flared early this week when patrols began searching houses for weapons. People complained today that the soldiers had pawed through women's underwear, brought police dogs into homes and even stolen money.
"They searched among the ladies without permission," said Talal Ahmad Abed Alzubaide, 31. "This is not acceptable in law and in religion."
On Monday, several people said, there was a protest outside the police station. "Their slogan was: We don't want the British forces to search our houses," said Dr. Hassan Jabar Kuber, the assistant director of the Majar hospital.
Later that day, city leaders met with the British. Today, people here said the British had signed an agreement saying they would stop searching houses and allow Iraqis to hand in their weapons.
Maj. Adam Marchant-Wincott, a media operations officer for the British forces, confirmed that a meeting had taken place but would not say whether there was an agreement.
Tuesday morning, the British official said, a patrol of paratroopers and a patrol of military police entered the city. Some military vehicles cruised down the main street, one witness said, and on the way back gunfire broke out.
Some Majar residents said that someone, perhaps members of the Baath Party, had fired first, while others said the British had started the violence by firing plastic bullets at crowds. No one admitted to knowing who had shot the soldiers.
The British forces responded to the attack by strafing the outskirts of the town with helicopters and fighter planes, several witnesses said.
Dr. Firas Fasaal Shetewi, who found that the six Royal Military Police soldiers _ four piled in a small office in the local police station and two lying in the station courtyard _ said through a translator that he believed the soldiers had tried to surrender, but when pressed he would not elaborate.
Dr. Shetewi carried the wounded to the British after asking them to promise to leave the town.
Initially, the clash was seen by the allies as a coordinated attack, but today a British military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt said, "The feeling is that it was an isolated event," Reuters reported. Witnesses and townspeople said they believed the incident arose spontaneously.
This morning when Dr. Shetewi escorted a group of visitors to the cement room where he had found the four bodies, it was filled with smoke, still smoldering from a recently kindled fire. The courtyard was filled with men, some carrying guns.
One of them, Abdel Amir Hamid, begged to speak. "I want just five minutes of your time," he said in halting English. "We are friends with the British police. We are very sad for him. Not everyone here kill him but some people here."
Just then another man, Abed Salaam, who said he was the head of the Majar security force, interrupted loudly, telling Mr. Hamid to leave.
People familiar with Majar, in Maysan Province, said they were not surprised that fighting had erupted here. Majar lies off the road to Baghdad a road that is not to be traveled at night, through an area said to be thick with thieves and tribal loyalties.
Under Saddam Hussein, the area resisted centralized authority. Mr. Hussein drained the nearby marshes in retaliation for the uprising in 1991, and many of the marsh Arabs who had participated wound up in Majar. The people here might be particularly sensitive to government searches, one British official suggested, because they so often had ended nastily.
"This area was severely impacted by the previous regime," Dr. Kuber said. "Saddam killed many of them. They are tired. Tired of the previous regime, tired socially, tired economically. Many of them left and went to Iran. They have no buildings, no jobs, no money."
Dangerous people blend in easily in Majar and the surrounding countryside, where guns and even heavy artillery are common. "Even if you don't have food, you are supposed to have a weapon," Dr. Shetewi said. "It is a tradition here."
It was clear, however, that the city's leaders viewed the patrol on Tuesday as a violation of the agreement, even though the British did not search any houses.
But the very appearance of the British soldiers on Tuesday was enough. "Even the previous regime, they hurt us, but they did not enter our houses," said Mr. Alzubaide, who said he had been only a witness to the events but who held court in a large room at the city cultural center while men handed him lit cigarettes.
He said the British had issued an ultimatum _ which a spokesman denied _ demanding the delivery of the culprits in the shooting or they would return today. "If you think I am lying, wait until 2 o'clock and you will see," Mr. Alzubaide said.
But 2 p.m. passed, and 3 p.m. came, and the only patrol was a line of mourners, mourning one of Majar's dead.
Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/26/international/worldspecial/26TOWN.html
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