MAJAR AL-KABIR, Iraq -- Local officials in southern Iraq said Wednesday that residents may have attacked and killed six British military police officers because they apparently were fearful of intrusive weapons searches.
Dr. Adel al-Shawi, a hospital administrator, said that British troops entered the town of Majar al-Kabir near Basra on Tuesday searching for arms despite an agreement giving local elders time to round up heavy weapons.
British sources said the soldiers were there to conduct patrols, not searches. However, they said, residents apparently did not understand.
Al-Shawi said children began throwing rocks at the British patrol as the crowd grew larger, more vocal and confrontational. According to British sources, up to 400 men in the crowd had weapons.
British soldiers first fired warning shots with rubber bullets, al-Shawi said, before weapons fire came from the crowd. The troops then fired live ammunition into the crowd.
The firefight continued as the British patrol retreated to a police station, police sources said, where four soldiers died and two died in the nearby area.
According to al-Shawi, four people from the town were killed and 17 others wounded in the exchange.
Initial information gathered from local residents indicated the soldiers "may have been involved in an incident at the local police station," British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon told the House of Commons on Tuesday. "British commanders are investigating with a matter of urgency."
These six casualties were the first British deaths in an Iraqi attack since the United States announced the end of major combat May 1. In the same time period, 19 U.S. troops have been killed in attacks by Iraqis, according to the U.S. military.
Because of the impromptu nature of the exchange, British officials said they don't believe Tuesday's clash is connected with what have been almost daily attacks on U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
Col. Ronnie McCourt, a British military spokesman, said officials do not think the attack was planned but that the situation escalated out of control.
Tribal leaders expressed regret Wednesday in a meeting with officials from Britain's 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, at a camp near Majar al-Kabir.