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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
War 'not over' in southern Iraq
Ben Brown
By Ben Brown
BBC correspondent in Amara, southern Iraq

Mehdi Army militiamen under cleric Moqtada Sadr, in Najaf on 6 April
Moqtada Sadr now has several hundred young fighters in Maysan
"We've certainly won a few battles," said Major James Coote, of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment. "But we haven't yet won the war."

And a "war" is exactly what the British now believe they are fighting in Maysan province, just to the north of Basra.

It started in early April, with the dramatic increase in attacks by Shia fighters loyal to the outlawed cleric, Moqtadr Sadr - the so-called Mehdi army.

According to the British, he now has several hundred young fighters in Maysan.

Many of them are not necessarily ideologically motivated, say British commanders: rather they're disillusioned and disaffected youth.

"It's like soccer hooligans in England," one officer told me. "They're unemployed, and they have too much time on their hands. We're an easy target for their frustrations."

But Maysan province has long been unruly. Even Saddam Hussein struggled to control its many competing - and sometimes warring - tribes.

Liberated themselves

Add to the mix a patchwork quilt of criminal gangs who specialise in smuggling drugs and weapons, and you'll see why Saddam found it so hard to bring this place under his heel.

Now the British are finding it just as difficult. "By and large, these people liberated themselves from Saddam," one commander told me. "They don't feel they owe us very much at all."

I flew into Amara with the Royal Air Force: in on a Hercules transport plane and out on a Chinook helicopter.

Flying is certainly the safest option when Sadr's fighters are busy carrying out so many ambushes on the roads below.

Indeed I was alarmed to hear that just the day before I arrived, a unit of up to 150 men had ambushed two convoys of British army Land Rovers.

The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment battle group fought back with the help of reinforcements in the daunting shape of Warrior armoured personnel carriers.

Map of Iraq

They killed at least 20 of their assailants and probably more like 35.

Bodies were later seen floating in a nearby river.

"We gave them a bloody nose," said one officer. "They might think twice before launching that sort of attack again."

Sadr's troops had thrown everything they had at the British: heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

The British returned fire and in the end they mounted old fashioned frontal assaults - their troops even fixed bayonets, the first time they have carried out a "bayonet charge" since the Falklands war in 1982.

It is an indication of how bloody the "war" here has become. This is sometimes brutal, almost hand-to-hand fighting.

Local people later accused the British of "executing" prisoners and "mutilating" bodies.

British commanders deny that emphatically, but there is another war here of course - that of propaganda.

Somewhat nervously, we stayed for three days with the British at their base just outside Amara, a city of some 300,000 people.

At worst, they open up on us with machine guns and rocket propelled grenade
Major Justin Featherstone

It comes under regular mortar attack and you start to get used to the wailing sirens that ring around the base and mean you have to run for cover.

Recently the British mounted a big operation codenamed "Waterloo" to drive the Mehdi army out of Amara, and particularly a large building there they were using as a headquarters.

But some of Sadr's fighters are still thought to holed up around a mosque in the city.

"If we go near that mosque, we risk young children throwing petrol bombs at us - at best," said Major Justin Featherstone.

"At worst, they open up on us with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades."

The Mehdi army also more or less run the nearby town of Majar al Kabir, where six men from the Royal Military Police were killed last year.

It's now a virtual no go zone for British troops, while Sadr's men are kings of the castle there.

Ambush worries

The British invited us to go on an operation with them while they mounted an operation along the road between Basra and Amara - to aim was to clear Sadr's fighters away from this vital highway between the two cities, and prevent further ambushes.

A fuel convoy was heading along the road the next day, and the British wanted to make sure it would be relatively safe.

They sent out Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior armoured personnel vehicles, one of which carried me in the back.

It was incredibly cramped and hot in the back, and I sweated buckets as I squeezed in next to the troops.

If you're claustrophobic I don't recommend it, and you have to drink almost constantly to replace the fluid you are losing.

Fortunately my Warrior had a tiny fridge with cold fizzy drinks in it - a small luxury in the battlefield.

This convoy of rumbling heavy armour came to an abrupt halt after a few hours when suspected fighters were spotted through night sights.

No weapons

My guts churned: were we about to be ambushed? Were the men around me about to launch another do-or-die bayonet charge? They fired a barrage of flares into the sky, magically turning this darkest of nights into day.

Then - in the distance - I could see infantry troops scurrying across the flat, arid landscape.

They were hunting down their enemy. In the end, the men they had spotted were harmless - they had no weapons after all.

To my considerable relief, not a single shot was fired. But around Amara, the British are taking no chances.

"We are in the ascendancy here," one officer told me.

But the truth is that there's more fighting to be done if the British are to be able to say that they truly control all of Maysan province and its people.

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