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Southern Iraqi town of Majar al-Kabir turns against British troops
As the British Government debates whether to send more troops to Iraq, Jack Fairweather in Majar al-Kabir looks at what could be in store for them
It is harvest time, and golden wheat is being threshed on the fields outside the town of Majar al-Kabir in southern Iraq. Yet the only crop British forces in the region are reaping is of bitterness and hate.
The town, 150 miles north of Basra, has become the fulcrum of a hitherto unreported resistance campaign against British forces who are being ambushed every day around the town and at nearby Amarah, previously a haven of calm.
No troops have set foot in Majar for six weeks since American moves to arrest the outlawed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr sparked a Shia uprising in the south. Residents give warning that should they do so, the town will become the British version of Fallujah, the standard-bearer of resistance to the US army.
Last week two Land Rovers belonging to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were repeatedly ambushed as they drove past Majar on a routine mission. Two hours of shooting left 27 Iraqis dead and three British soldiers seriously wounded.
In the first ambush, militiamen from Sadr's Mahdi army fired on the patrol from dug-in positions. Running battles were then fought along the outskirts of the town as the Land Rovers desperately tried to extricate themselves.
After 45 minutes several Warrior armoured vehicles and more than 100 soldiers arrived to rescue them and form a protective cordon.
It was the most serious engagement undertaken by British forces, and has left the residents of Majar baying for further attacks.
Local people accuse soldiers of killing Iraqi prisoners detained after the fighting and of mutilating 10 corpses.
It is an accusation roundly dismissed as "ridiculous" by the military. "The British Army doesn't do things like that," said a spokesman.
However the military does say it removed 20 corpses from the battle site and returned them to Majar's hospital for burial only the next day. No reason has been given for the removal of corpses, which is not normal procedure.
The residents of Majar have their own explanation. At the town's hospital, one of their leaders, Ali Amari, said: "The British want to drive wedges of fear into our hearts. They have no regard for humanity."
The Telegraph was taken to the hospital's mortuary to see the corpses of two men killed in the fighting. One had had his eyes gouged out and a blow to the side of his head. The other had dog bite marks on his shoulder and mutilated genitalia.
Family members identifying one of the corpses laid the blame squarely at the feet of the British. "I will kill every British soldier I see," screamed one.
Whoever disfigured the corpses - Sadr's militia may be a possible suspect - the effect has been to turn a hostile town into a tinderbox.
Majar has always been a rough-and-ready place. Tribes in the town fought Saddam Hussein in the marshes and do not take kindly to strangers.
In July, seven British military policemen were cornered at a police station and killed by a mob of several hundred. Tribal leaders said they objected to intrusive house-to-house searches.
Since then Sadr's Mahdi army has moved into the dusty, mud-brick town, neatly allying tribal grievances with the cleric's radical agenda.
The British base of Abu Naji, 15 miles north of Majar, looks like a caravan park in Arizona, but has the atmosphere of Rorke's Drift.
Nightly rocket and mortar attacks have meant that for the past month the 1,000 soldiers based there have had to live under hard cover.
"I was queuing up for my grub last week when a mortar landed 30 metres away from me," said Trooper Lee Owens, 21, from Halifax. "I didn't let it ruin my appetite though." Meals are now eaten inside shipping containers.
Soldiers at the camp say they have been stunned by the level of violence they have encountered in southern Iraq.
Sgt Jerry Hewitt, 37, from Portsmouth, said: "Most of the older lads have done tours of Northern Ireland, and were expecting to pass on our experience of peacekeeping to the young ones. But we've never been in anything like this before. This is like a war."
The troops know they will have to go into Majar soon. Major Helen Bryan, head of civil-military affairs, said: "We've got a lot of reconstruction projects to begin, if the people will only let us work with them. Right now they are not very happy with us."