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Iraq: Violence Flaring In Normally Peaceful South

  • Sergei Danilochkin --> Fresh violence in southern Iraq is shattering the relative calm the region had been enjoying.

Prague, 31 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The relative calm in southern Iraq has been disturbed by a series of violent incidents this month, including clashes with coalition forces and local law enforcement authorities.

Three British soldiers are reported to have been injured today near Al-Basrah when an explosive device went off near their vehicle.

On 29 March, British troops clashed with some 80 demonstrators in the city of Al-Basrah. Two British soldiers and five Iraqis were injured. The British troops had been called in to evict a group of local militiamen from a building that belongs to a local women's organization.

"I think we are bound to have these sorts of incidents. I mean, not every individual down in the south is going to be friendly towards the U.K. troops."
The recent clashes followed other incidents of violence in Al-Basrah this month. Thirteen British soldiers were injured in two explosions in Al-Basrah on 22 March. A few days earlier, an explosion in the city killed at least two people. Unidentified assailants also killed two Iraqi women employed in a laundry for coalition forces in Al-Basrah on 11 March.

Despite the fresh violence, analysts say they are not overly concerned about the security situation in southern Iraq, where British troops are deployed.

Phillip Mitchell is a military analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He acknowledges some degree of unrest in the south but says that, in comparison to Baghdad and other areas, it is very minor.

"I think we are bound to have these sorts of incidents. I mean, not every individual down in the south is going to be friendly towards the U.K. troops. There is still a core -- even in the south -- of Ba'athist supporters, Saddam's supporters. And, perhaps, indeed, allied to some of the more fundamentalist Islamic supporters, as well," Mitchell said.

Mitchell says British troops have so far been able to maintain security with reasonable success. He says a key factor has been the relative support of the local population and the troops' cooperation with local leaders and authorities.

"The winning of hearts and minds is something which the U.K. troops have practiced over many, many years. U.K. troops have learned over many years -- stretching from Malaya through Cyprus through Aden and Northern Ireland -- we have learned how to carry out warfare in an urban environment," Mitchell said.

Julian Lindley-French is an analyst at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He says the tactics used by British forces emphasize conflict resolution within the community through local authorities.

"If the police force down there can deal with this kind of civilian disturbance, it's far better that they do that with the British remaining in reserve -- but with the clear message that if it got out of hand, then the British would use all their experience and come in very hard," Lindley-French said.

Analysts says the Shi'a in southern Iraq generally had a more welcoming attitude toward coalition forces because they were genuinely seen as liberators. But that situation is changing after almost one year of occupation and frustration over the pace of improvements.

Lindley-French says the emergence of different militias in the Al-Basrah area reflects the lack of unity among various political, religious, and tribal groups. These different groups are getting ready to compete for power once sovereignty is handed back to Iraqis on 30 June.

"Well, I think they pose as much of a threat to each other as they do to the British. I mean, this is clearly the emergence of a fairly crude political process. There are several such groups. I could not give you an exact number. But they are nominally linked to some tribal or political foundations. The British are trying as much as possible to work with the senior figures in each community from which the militias derive their power. They are a limited grouping, and they do not work together," Lindley-French said.

However, Lindley-French notes that more dangerous elements grouped around radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may pose a new security threat in the area. Al-Sadr has called on his supporters to drive out occupying forces.