29 June 2003
When six Royal Military Police started a patrol in the ramshackle town of Majar al-Kabir on the edge of the Iraqi marshlands last week, they were entering the streets of one of the most dangerous towns in Iraq. Guerrillas had harried Saddam Hussein's army for decades from hideouts in the reed beds around Majar al-Kabir and later, after their enemy drained the marshes, from holes dug in the ground.
By the time the shooting had stopped, with the largest British losses since the official end of the war, the Allies had learnt that they face more lethal opponents than the remnants of Saddam's regime.
The British Army is now trying to play down what has happened as a misunderstanding over the search for weapons, but the killings were the first sign that the random attacks on US soldiers, hitherto confined to the Sunni Muslim centre of Iraq, are beginning to spread to the British occupied Shia heartlands of the south.
The friction between the Army and the people of Majar al-Kabir started last weekend. Villagers saw no reason why, if Saddam Hussein had not disarmed them, they should give up their weapons to British forces. Ali al-Atiyah, an aide to the charismatic guerrilla leader Abu Hatem Qarim Mahoud whose men fought a prolonged war of resistance against Saddam Hussein before capturing the nearby provincial capital of Amarah on 7 April, says local tribesmen "consider their weapons are a holy thing".
There is also a deeper reason for the animosity. In private, tribesmen say they are convinced the real motive behind the searches is that the US and Britain want to stay a long time in Iraq. "We are just waiting for our religious leaders to issue a fatwa against the occupation and then we will fight the occupation," says one.
Last weekend young boys in the town started throwing stones at patrols. Abu Hatem says: "They were taking dogs into our houses to search for weapons. Two guard dogs which attacked soldiers in one house were shot dead."
Baking in the heat of the Iraqi summer, Majar al-Kabir does not at first look like a resistance stronghold. But it is one of a string of towns close to the marshes which have traditionally provided cover for bandits and guerrillas. It is also not far from the Iranian frontier, which is easy to slip across.
The main guerilla power in the area is Abu Hatem, but he has serious rivals. Adel Hameed Raheem, a teacher from the town now living in Basra, says that the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, has growing strength in Majar al-Kabir. He suspects that "Iran knows it may be the next target of the US so it is best for them if the US and Britain have trouble inside Iraq."
Several of the guards in the police station admitted they had been trained in Iran.
The close connection with Iran has a long history. Local people have long smuggled across the border into Iraq the bodies of Iranians who want to be buried in the Shia shrine city of Najaf. Others guide Iranians looking for the bodies of relatives who were killed in the eight-year war between the two countries that ended in 1988.
But, tempting though it may be for the US and Britain to blame Iran for growing Islamic militancy in southern Iraq, it is likely that the attack on British solders was spontaneous.
The flat plains of this part of Iraq were long ago drenched with the blood of British soldiers. It was here in 1915-16 that British armies tried and failed to fight their way north to relieve the British force besieged in the tumbledown city of Kut, up river on the Tigris. In Amarah, beside the skeletons of half a dozen long abandoned buses, there is a desolate cemetery, surrounded by barbed wire, commemorating soldiers killed in the First World War and in the Shia uprising against the British occupation in 1920. In other parts of Iraq are buried 40,000 British dead who died in battle or from disease in this little remembered campaign.
Nevertheless, it was not obvious to local Iraqi leaders a week ago that Majar al-Kabir was about to explode into violence. Abu Hatem had visited the town to defuse a confrontation with British troops. On Monday an agreement was signed in English and Arabic under which searches would be suspended for two months, but heavy weapons such as mortars, rocket propelled grenade, heavy machine guns and grenades were to be handed over. A week's grace was to be given for the local council to explain this agreement to the people.
Abu Hatem and other local leaders say this agreement was breached - although it was never stated that patrols would stop.
"We do not know if this deal still exists," says Al-Sayid Kadum al-Hashimi, a member of the local council who says he is politically independent.
Iraqis make the point that the situation in this area is not like the rest of Iraq. "Amarah is different because here Iraqis liberated themselves," says Adel Hameed Raheem proudly. He adds that there should be an agreement on weapons, as has happened in Kurdistan where the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, long foes of Saddam Hussein, have been allowed to keep their arms.
A central problem for the US and Britain is that pre-war propaganda which tried to suggest that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qa'ida and Islamic fundamentalism was false. In fact, they could not have been more at odds. During Saddam's 35-year rule, Islamic groups were ferociously suppressed.
They are now much stronger since the fall of the old regime. The portraits of Saddam Hussein in Shia areas have largely been replaced by pictures of Shia clerics whom he murdered, such as Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr.
The Iraqi Shias, a majority of the population, believe that with the fall of Saddam Hussein their day should have come. Though their leaders are divided they are at one in saying that they want free elections.
In Najaf one Shia cleric said resolutely: "The people are united in rejecting occupation." But if there are elections or a credible interim government the Shia Islamic parties will inevitably gain substantial power in Iraq.
This would be embarrassing, to say the least, for George Bush and Tony Blair, who did not overthrow Saddam Hussein to make Iraq more Islamic.
The response of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as the occupation administration is known, has been to delay forming even a provisional Iraqi administration nominated by L Paul Bremer, the chief US official in Iraq, and to put off elections to a more distant future.
But without an Iraqi administration with which to share responsibility, the CPA bears the full brunt of Iraqi wrath for the continuing failure to restore public order - almost three months after the capture of Baghdad looting still continues - or to provide services such as electricity and water at the same level as during the last days of Saddam Hussein.
In purely military terms the US and British armies control Iraq, but the occupation has very few Iraqi allies. In addition, as Hoshyar Zebari, a leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, points out: "All the neighbouring countries, with the exception of Kuwait, want the US and Britain to fail here. They don't want to see what happened to Saddam happen to them."
Most Iraqis are preoccupied with the struggle to live. They will not starve because the long established oil-for-food rationing system is working again and providing a meagre diet. But one of the reasons Iraqis did not fight for the old regime was a desperate longing for a normal life, denied to them for almost a quarter of a century.
"Expectations among Iraqis were very high," commented one international aid official. "They thought that after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein they could become like Kuwait, but nothing has got better."
If Saddam Hussein is captured or killed, if Iraqis are made to feel safe in their homes and on the street, and if public services are restored, then the US and Britain might be able to stabilise Iraq for a few months.
But the savage burst of fighting in Majar al-Kabir shows that the US and Britain face many dangerous enemies in Iraq who have nothing to do with the surviving supporters of Saddam Hussein.