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'Welsh Guards poised to re-enter MAK'

from the Telegraph website - presumably in today's Sunday Tel. Before anyone starts, this story does not look like 'irresponsible journalism'.

Welsh Guards seek justice for Redcap killings
By Toby Harnden in Amara
(Filed: 12/12/2004)

British soldiers are preparing to seize back the rebel Iraqi town of Majar al-Kabir, largely off limits since the murder of six Redcap military policemen there last year.

Units of the Welsh Guards are poised to re-enter the town, which is 100 miles northeast of Basra, as part of a tough counter-insurgency strategy before next month's Iraqi elections.

Majar al-Kabir is a haven for bandits and fighters [photo]

They plan to crack down on Shia fighters while seeking to persuade local leaders that their co-operation will enable much-needed improvements to the town's infrastructure.

Lt Col Ben Bathurst, who commands the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards in Maysan province, said: "Tribal fighting there is out of hand. The level of threat is too much for the police to cope with, largely because they all live there and are influenced by intimidation."

Last week, Lt Col Bathurst's Iraqi aide and translator, who accompanied him in discussions with local leaders, privately warned one hardliner who opposed British entry that he had no option but to agree, or face Majar al-Kabir being "wiped off the map".

The town – known as MAK to the Army – revels in its notoriety. Home to 85,000 Shia, it has become a "no go" zone for coalition forces. Yet there is unfinished business there. Six suspected members of the mob that killed the military policemen in June 2003 are at large and have alleged links to candidates in next month's elections.

Campaigning Maysan-style features candidates bombing each other. "Every single conversation here ends with a request for a pistol," said Lt Col Bathurst.

A stronghold of the Mahdi army, a poor militia loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Majar al-Kabir is also a haven for bandits and fighters opposed to the presence of British soldiers in Iraq.

It is a potential flashpoint for any uprising after the elections if, as expected, Sadr's candidates receive few votes in the region near the Iranian border.

Lt Col Bathurst said that some local leaders have recently pressed for British forces to be sent in, and he was seeking to persuade others that such a move would help reconstruction projects, including electricity and sanitation.

"I have got to build consensus to start with and try to separate the majority of people from the insurgents," he said.

He made clear that the Welsh Guards would do whatever was needed to assist bringing those behind the Redcaps' killings to justice. "It is a particularly British trait that murder cases are never forgotten," he said.

Like South Armagh, where Lt Col Bathurst was a company commander, Maysan province has a history of rebellion and independence. Majar al-Kabir, which sees itself as the Fallujah of the south-east, has parallels with Crossmaglen.

"There are definitely people coming out of MAK to conduct attacks," said Lt Col Bathurst.

Another Welsh Guards officer, Capt Tom Eastman, said: "We're isolating MAK by going into the towns around it. We're dictating the pace and establishing a foothold outside. It's never good to have a feeling of 'no go' areas."

He added that offering possible reconstruction projects to sheikhs and imams was key to minimising violence when soldiers enter the town. "It's almost forcing them to come grovelling to us, which is a way of diffusing it rather than going in with all wagons blazing."

Not every project sought by local leaders wins British Army backing, however. "One of their recent requests was for rebuilding the town walls," said Lt Col Bathurst. "We declined."

British military thinking, Lt Col Bathurst conceded, had changed in Iraq, moving closer to the American concept of overwhelming force. Orthodox peacekeeping would, he said, "fail from the outset. Strength is respected here. If anything, we've shifted more than the Americans."

Looking out from a rooftop over Amara's Dickensian brick factories, Major Charles Antelme spoke of the smuggling and shifting tribal allegiances of the area.

"Maysan is the backwater of Iraq," he said. "People respect the tough guy with the gun. It's gangland. It's the Wild West. It's people breaking out of jail. They fish in the river using hand grenades."

Black Watch soldiers leaving Camp Dogwood in central Iraq have returned with a new respect for American tactics. British troops are now more confident having proved themselves equal to the challenge of fighting in the Sunni triangle.

Major Antelme said: "In South Armagh you felt like a prisoner in a fort. Now, the guys are tougher in a sense and the mood is lighter."
Be nice to think that Tone would let them off the leash. I doubt the PC tw-t will unless he sees some political advantage in it.
Not election year is it?
- i or a ?

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