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Iraq: Are Attacks On British Soldiers Organized Resistance Or Local Incidents?

  • Charles Recknagel

The attack that killed six British soldiers yesterday in Iraq is focusing attention on how much armed resistance the coalition faces there. It is also raising the question of whether the resistance is centrally organized by remnants of Hussein's regime or comes from local groups with local grievances.

Prague, 25 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The details of how six British military policemen were killed in southern Iraq yesterday remain sketchy and are likely to take some time to resolve.

What is known is that the six were killed while training Iraqi police at Majar Al-Kabir, 15 miles from the south-central city of Amarah. The attackers reportedly used rocket-propelled grenades to overcome the military policemen. Eight other British troops were wounded in later attacks on a British patrol and a helicopter.

What is not known is who is behind the attacks, the first significant assaults on British troops in what -- until now -- has been the calm south of the country.

The AP quotes a local policeman as saying the British troops were targeted by townspeople angry over civilian deaths during a demonstration yesterday in the town of Majar Al-Kabir. Details of that demonstration are still emerging but correspondents say there has been a growing problem in the area with tribesmen who have refused to hand over their weapons. The British military police have been actively trying to disarm them.

Other Western media have speculated the attackers may have been Hussein loyalists, pro-Iranian Shi'ites, or smugglers.

British officials so far have only said the deaths were the result of "hostile fire" and that a full investigation is under way.

Analysts say the biggest question around yesterday's attacks is whether they are part of an increasingly organized armed resistance by Hussein loyalists or are the work of a local group motivated by local grievances.

Michael Clarke of the Department of War Studies at King's College in London says early evidence seems to point to a local incident: "There is some circumstantial evidence for [a local incident] at the moment, that it was driven by this particular incident where four demonstrators were shot early yesterday morning and that caused an immediate problem in which two of the British MPs were shot. The other four took refuge in the police station and they were, after a two-hour gun battle, finally overcome."

Clarke says it is not yet clear whether the other British patrol and helicopter attacked yesterday were on their way to help the military policemen or whether those were separate incidents.

If yesterday's deaths were a local incident, they could be viewed as a one-time exception to what until now has been a peaceful British occupation of Shi'ite southern Iraq. Washington and London consider the Shi'ites, who compose some 60 percent of the Iraqi population, as having supported the coalition's toppling of Hussein, who long oppressed their community.

Until now, the British have felt comfortable enough in southern Iraq to wear soft headgear -- rather than heavy helmets -- while on patrol. By contrast, U.S. troops -- who are shot at almost daily in areas of central Iraq that were once strongholds of support for the old regime -- continue to wear full combat gear.

But analysts say that if yesterday's incident was not a one-time local conflict, it could be a sign of more worrisome things to come.

Clarke does not rule out that the attack could have been carried out by elements of the Shi'ite community becoming increasingly restive with foreign occupation. He also does not rule out that it could be a sign that Hussein loyalists -- active in the central areas -- are now establishing a guerrilla presence in the south.

Other analysts also believe yesterday's attack was most likely locally motivated. Philip Mitchell, a military expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the attack may have been carried out by smugglers eager to maintain a state of lawlessness that has characterized the Amarah area since the end of the war.

"I think based on the events of previous weeks, all the reports from that area have been that the locals have been at relative peace with the Brits, with the troops in the area," Mitchell said. "So my gut reaction is that this is a one-off. Although it seems to indicate some sort of organization and planning, to me, I think, having read some of the reports, it stems more out of local criminal activity than out of anti-Brit, pro-Saddam supporters being involved."

The Amarah area lies along one of the main smuggling routes for heroin from Afghanistan through Iran to the Arab Gulf states and Europe. Criminals and anti-Saddam guerrillas used local marshlands as cover for their activities, prompting Baghdad to deliberately drain much of the area in the 1990s.

A former guerrilla, Abu Hattem, now controls much of the Amarah area, and the British allow his Hizbollah group to maintain checkpoints on local roads. Abu Hattem's group itself is not suspected of any role in yesterday's attack, but the presence of such private forces underlines the general lawlessness of the region.

As the British now seek to learn who carried out the attacks -- and whether they now face irregular or well-organized foes -- London is weighing whether to increase its troop deployment in southern Iraq.

Clarke says increasing the deployment may be necessary because the 16,000 British forces in southern Iraq are stretched over a large, highly populated area: "British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon made an announcement literally this morning that they would give active consideration to beefing up the numbers, and I'm sure they are going to have to. They had planned to withdraw from their 16,000 [troops] there now down to 10,000 by the end of the year, and I don't think that now is going to be feasible. They are just too thinly stretched. And the idea of sending in more troops is now an active possibility."

Clarke calls Britain's presence in southern Iraq a form of "risky peacekeeping" due to the contingent's small size. By contrast, London has deployed anywhere from 12,000 to 22,000 soldiers to maintain security in Northern Ireland, a fraction of the size of southern Iraq.

U.S. officials say there is no organized armed resistance in Iraq and have blamed attacks on coalition troops on loose bands of Hussein loyalists.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's top military leader, said yesterday that some 130,000 U.S. forces have been brought home from the Iraq region since the end of the war. He said that some 146,000 American troops remain to patrol the U.S.-occupied areas of the country.

Poland is tasked with deploying a new multinational peacekeeping force of up to 7,500 troops in Iraq by the beginning of September. The Polish force will patrol south-central Iraq between Baghdad and the port of Al-Basrah, while U.S. forces will continue to patrol the north-central area and British forces the south.