MAJAR AL-KABIR, Iraq – Townspeople furious over civilian deaths during a demonstration in this southern Iraqi town chased down and killed six British military police, local police said Wednesday.
Abbas Faddhel, an Iraqi policeman in the town, said the British troops shot and killed four civilian demonstrators on Tuesday.
Armed civilians then killed two of the British soldiers at the scene of the demonstration – in front of the mayor’s office – and then chased four other British soldiers to a police station, killing them after a two-hour gunbattle, Faddhel said.
Abu Zahraa, a 30-year-old local vendor, also said that Iraqi civilians were killed by British soldiers during a demonstration earlier Tuesday against the presence of British forces in the city. He said the British had formally agreed a day earlier to let local police patrol the city.
Zahraa and another witness, who declined to give his name, said the British troops came under attack and retreated to the local police station. Angry townspeople then went to their homes to fetch assault rifles, returned to the station and attacked the besieged British soldiers, all of whom died, the witnesses said.
The witnesses said that two Iraqis died in the firefight with townspeople, but Faddhel, the policeman, could not confirm that account.
A British military spokesman, Capt. Adam Marchant-Wincott, said he could not confirm the witness accounts. He said, however, that it was possible that there had been an agreement between British forces and local police allowing the locals to take over security for the city.
Marchant-Wincott said he could not say whether the British forces had fired at demonstrators but added that they would do so only if their lives were threatened.
Faddhel said that there were about two dozen Iraqi policemen at the station who fled through a window during the gunbattle. Faddhel said they asked the British military police to flee with them but the British insisted on staying.
On Wednesday, the station bore the marks of a large gunbattle, with walls pocked full of bullet holes. Broken glass and dried blood stains covered the floor.
Faddhel said that besides the British killed, two Iraqi police officers inside the station were wounded during the gunbattle.
The gunbattle raised fears that violence is spreading to formerly calm regions and pushing Iraqi into guerrilla warfare despite assurances by U.S. officials that they are mopping up resistance.
Also Tuesday, an oil pipeline was sabotaged near Hadithah, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, an Iraq oil ministry official said.
Television reports Wednesday showed oil flooding into palm groves and the Euphrates River. The official, who asked not to be named, said saboteurs broke valves on the pipeline, causing the oil to spill.
It was the latest in a series of attacks against Iraq’s power and oil infrastructure that has set back reconstruction efforts.
The violence at the police station came in the mostly Shiite south, where resentment toward Saddam Hussein’s government had been strong. There had been no substantial attacks there against U.S. or British forces since the end of the war, and British troops in the city of Basra had felt so secure that they had stopped wearing helmets and flak jackets.
The U.S. military said Tuesday there had been 25 attacks on coalition forces over a 24-hour period, including a firefight in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, that killed four Iraqis and wounded two American soldiers and two Iraqis.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, called the pro-Saddam forces “dead-enders” and said coalition troops were making progress against them.
“Just as they were unable to stop the coalition advance in Baghdad, the death squads will not stop our commitment to create stability and security in postwar Iraq,” Rumsfeld said at the daily defense department briefing.
Majar al-Kabir is a mostly Shiite city about 180 miles southeast of Baghdad and just south of the city of Amarah.
British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon told Parliament in London that the British soldiers – military police on a mission to train Iraqi police – were apparently killed in a police station in the town.
Elsewhere in the same town, a “large number” of Iraqi gunmen opened fire on a British patrol Tuesday with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and rifles, Hoon said. The British returned fire, and one soldier was wounded in the fight.
A rapid reaction force, including Scimitar light tanks and a Chinook CH-47 helicopter, came to help the ground troops but also came under fire, Hoon said. Seven people on board the helicopter were wounded, three of them seriously, the government said.
Hoon said commanders were investigating whether the deaths and the ambush were connected.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, extended condolences to the families of the dead soldiers.
“These losses are a reminder that Iraq remains a dangerous place,” Myers said at the Pentagon. “But we must continue to stand firm.”
It was the deadliest day for coalition forces since May 19, when six U.S. Marines died, most in a helicopter crash and a vehicle accident.
The deadliest single attack on coalition forces came on March 23, the early days of the U.S.-led invasion, when Iraqis opened fire on a U.S. Army maintenance convoy near the southern town of Nasiriyah, killing 11 soldiers.
At least 18 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraqi attacks since May 1, when major combat was declared over. Most of the attacks have occurred in the belt of central and western Iraq dominated by Sunni Muslims, Saddam’s strongest supporters.
Saddam loyalists, Sunnis and ex-army soldiers are suspected in the attacks. The Shiite-dominated south has been largely peaceful since the regime’s fall. The Muslim sect was long repressed by Saddam and rose up in some areas as coalition forces invaded the country in March. Shiites have since assumed leadership roles in many regions and moved to restore order.
Thus the British have not seen major violence for weeks.
“It’s normally very quiet down here,” said British Army Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, in Basra. “We’ve been here nearly two months now and this is the first time people have been deliberately, consciously shooting at us.”
Forty-two British troops have died – 19 in accidents – since the war began March 20. Britain had suffered no confirmed combat deaths since April 6.