- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

From combined dispatches

MAJAR AL-KABIR, Iraq — Iraqi civilians, furious over intrusive searches for weapons in their homes, were responsible for the fatal shooting of six British soldiers, residents said yesterday.

The bloodshed was prompted by a protest fraught with tension.

Residents of Majar al-Kabir said four Iraqis were killed and 14 were wounded in the clashes Tuesday.

Coinciding with the spreading violence in Iraq, the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera reported today that it had received a statement and videotape from an Iraqi resistance group that took responsibility for attacks on U.S. forces and promised more strikes.

It was believed to be the first time a group has taken responsibility for the increasingly bloody resistance in Iraq.

The Pentagon repeatedly has said that the attacks, which have killed at least 18 Americans since May 1, when President Bush declared the combat phase over, were not the work of any organized resistance.

In British-patrolled southern Iraq, thousands of Iraqis in the conservative Shi’ite Muslim town of Majar al-Kabir staged a demonstration to protest the weapons searches begun by British soldiers Saturday.

Residents accused the troops of bursting into their homes with search dogs, which many Muslims consider impure, and pointing guns at women and children.

Witnesses said British forces tried to control the crowd by firing rubber bullets.

But one resident, Nasser Kadhem, said that soldiers responded with live ammunition after a British patrol came under fire.

He said two soldiers in the patrol died at that point.

Angry residents then stormed the local police station about 400 yards away, where another group of soldiers was meeting with policemen, and peppered the building with rifle fire. Four soldiers died in the station, Mr. Kadhem said.

Reporters in the town noted bullet holes in cars and buildings.

Other residents said British troops fired rubber bullets, but some in the crowd believed the soldiers used live rounds.

A spokesman for Britain’s Ministry of Defense said he could not confirm whether the soldiers were carrying other than real bullets.

“Our understanding is that they were liaising with local police forces, but I can’t say on the basis of that whether they would have been equipped with baton rounds. We’re still trying to find that out,” he said.

The mayor’s office — where the unrest began Tuesday with a protest that turned violent — also showed signs of a siege, with grenade shrapnel in a bathroom and damage from an explosion on a sidewalk.

About 100 residents protested the British weapons sweeps in a four-hour demonstration outside the mayor’s office, where a dozen British troops were posted, witnesses said. The protesters threw rocks, and British troops fired back with rubber bullets before switching to live ammunition, the witnesses said.

Yesterday, there were no British forces to be seen in or around Majar al-Kabir. But British military officials said they were hunting for the gunmen.

“The whole situation is being investigated. We are actively seeking them,” said Capt. Gemma Hardy, a British military spokeswoman.

British forces occupying southern Iraq had agreed Monday to stay out of Majar al-Kabir for 60 days and allow local security forces to seize heavy weapons, said Fadhel Radi, a municipal judge.

Mr. Radi said the British violated the agreement by coming into the city, sparking the initial demonstration. He produced a handwritten agreement in English and Arabic.

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