Iraqi villagers blame British soldiers' 'brutal' searches for massacre

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FURROWING a pair of ornately tattooed eyebrows, Kumbula Kami told of the moment the British lost the battle for hearts and minds in the village of Abu Allah.

"They kicked their way through the door at five in the morning last Sunday," she said, waving an angry fist at the hut she shares with five other families. "They didn’t have translators with them so we had no idea why they were here, and the men soldiers rummaged through all my daughter’s clothing."

It was here, in the Shia shanty village of Abu Allah overlooking the Tigris, that the controversial weapons searches took place which eventually led to Tuesday’s bloody battle in the nearby town of al-Majar al-Kabir, in which six British Royal Military Policemen were killed. Yesterday, The Scotsman became the first newspaper to visit the village - and found a mixture of bewilderment, anger and regret.

According to the British, the reason for the raids was to hunt for .50 calibre machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. According to the residents, the only guns in the village are the Kalashnikovs and pistols. It seems to have been the manner of the searches which provoked fury. Villagers claim women were searched intimately, that money went missing and that the soldiers behaved rudely.

But the real flashpoint was over the sniffer dogs each team of Paratroopers brought. In a village where every household keeps several half-feral mongrels, it was pandemonium.

"As soon as they saw the British dogs every beast in the village began barking like mad," said Mohammad Aziz, 51. "My dog, Reddy, did the same and one of the officers got nervous and pointed his pistol at him. I said, ‘Please don’t shoot my dog’ and tried to get in the way, but then another soldier shot him twice. Why did they have to do that? Can’t the British understand that it upsets us?"

In the town of al-Majar al-Kabir, where the killings took place on Tuesday, there are as many different stories about what happened as there are people. Even the British military says the picture is confused. It was only yesterday that it disclosed that not one but two groups of soldiers had been involved.

One insider said: "It seems there was a misunderstanding. After the villagers protested about the searches, we think some agreement was made that they wouldn’t continue. But that wasn’t passed down the line and when some Paras just went on an ordinary patrol through the market on Tuesday, the locals thought they were searching for weapons again and got angry."

The Paras, it seems, fought their way out with the help of air support. But the six Royal Military Police, who were on a separate patrol, also became caught up in the trouble and were isolated from help.

Locals insisted that until last week, relations with the British had been excellent. However, there are signs of impatience that their new military masters have not yet improved living standards.

In Abu Allah, villagers quite literally scratch a living from the ground building houses from mud bricks and cooking with fires fuelled by cow dung.

"If they improved their electricity and water supplies, nobody would care about weapons," said Mrs Kami. Two killed and two abducted as attacks escalate.

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