Escalation in anti-coalition attacks

THE terrorist massacre in Basra yesterdaycomes just weeks after EADT reporter Roddy Ashworth returned from the Iraqi city, having reported the possibility of a large escalation in anti-coalition attacks.

THE terrorist massacre in Basra yesterdaycomes just weeks after EADT reporter Roddy Ashworth returned from the Iraqi city, having reported the possibility of a large escalation in anti-coalition attacks. Here he gives his reaction to news of the latest atrocity.

IT was what the British soldiers serving in Iraq had feared but also expected.

Until yesterdaythe south of the battered country, with its Shia majority, had remained largely free of major, co-ordinated terror attacks in the period since the war ended.

On the dusty streets of Basra and its surrounding districts - where most of the British troops have been serving - the main concern had been random home-made bombs targeted at coalition vehicle patrols.

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Drivers of armoured trucks, known as snatches, were used to constantly checking the sides of the roads for booby-traps, as had the two "lookout" soldiers on board, their guns trained fore and aft.

Made from discarded unexploded munitions, scattered over the arid landscape in years of conflict, a small cell of perhaps four or five local terrorists had been blamed for the manufacture and detonation of these "remote control improvised explosive devices", better known as RCIEDs, or IEDs for short.

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But with yesterday's catastrophic bombings, the ugly spectre of the dreaded VBIED - vehicle borne IED - has come into play, bring with it the worrying likelihood of foreign involvement.

In March 24's EADT I reported from Iraq the sadly well-founded concerns of Captain Simon Collyer of Second Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who warned tragedies such as yesterday's car-bombings could lie ahead.

"Recent intelligence suggests most of the problems don't come from locals, but from foreign insurgents. This could signify a potential escalation," he said.

"We constantly fear the use of VBIEDs because a mobile truck load of explosives can do far more damage than a stationary single ordinance."

Less than a month later 68 people are dead and at least 238 injured in one day of such attacks.

The car or truck packed with high explosives is virtually undetectable in a busy and chaotic urban area such as Basra, and almost guarantees terror, carnage and death.

It is a recognised weapon of al-Quaida, and the town's mayor - Wael Abdul-Hafeez - has already pointed the finger directly at Osama bin Laden's terror network.

The feeling of apprehension in the city was constant while I was reporting from there last month and, on the streets, the members of the newly established Iraqi Police Force knew they were high on the list of terrorist targets.

Patrolling with about eight officers - all armed with AK47s - and a coalition military escort, I walked through a market area of Basra with its chaotic, crammed stalls and hundreds of swarming children, providing plenty of opportunity for the ruthless terrorist to operate.

Later I was told that the Basra suburb of Az Zubayr - where four British soldiers were injured yesterday in an explosion - was regarded as a hot-bed of resistance.

Intelligence officer Colour Sergeant Frank Fletcher, a member of 2 PARA working with 26 Regiment Royal Artillery, told me: "Al Zubayr is full of frustration and anger. The people are quite short-fused.

"We have a company of infantry there who are keeping a lid on it. But every second day there is a shooting.

"Just last week there was a gun battle in which we had 100 rounds fired at our guys."

He also spoke of his concerns for the future. "There are threats of bombs 10 times bigger than those we have seen so far.

"My largest fear is of bigger bombs in the run-up to the June handover.

"Small ones we can deal with. Big ones would completely undermine the situation and could fragment the relationship between the Sunni and Shia populations.

"If the Iraqis turn on each other it could make the country very difficult for anyone to control."

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