LONDON – Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon (search) on Wednesday said the southern Iraqi town where six British military police died had been tense because local people routinely carried weapons including machine guns.
An Iraqi policeman in the town of Majar al-Kabir (search) told The Associated Press that the British troops were killed Tuesday by locals angered at the deaths of four civilian demonstrators who had been shot by the soldiers.
The Ministry of Defense (search) could not immediately confirm or deny the claim, and senior British officials have stopped short of saying the military police were killed in an attack. But Hoon said there had been concern about Majar al-Kabir before the deaths.
Hoon also said Britain could deploy more troops to Iraq following the incident -- the deadliest involving British forces since Saddam Hussein's ouster -- adding that thousands of reinforcements were available.
"I know that there was some tension in this particular town," he told British Broadcasting Corp. TV. "That arises out of the fact that it is routinely the case in a number of these southern towns for people to be armed and indeed for people to have quite heavy weapons, including machine guns.
"That background is clearly important to our investigations," he said.
Hoon said the bodies of the six military policemen were recovered in Majar al-Kabir, near the largely Shiite town of Amarah, which is about 90 miles north of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
British paratroopers were attacked on Tuesday in the same town. Hoon said members of 1 Parachute Regiment came under fire while conducting a routine patrol. Their two vehicles were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and rifle fire from "a large number of Iraqi gunmen."
They returned fire and called for assistance. Scimitar vehicles, a Chinook helicopter and extra troops responded and also came under fire, Hoon said. Eight British troops were injured, one on the ground and seven in the helicopter, and were taken to a field hospital. Two were later transferred to a U.S. field hospital in Kuwait with "very serious injuries."
Hoon warned against drawing conclusions from the two incidents about the wider security situation in southern Iraq, which is largely a British responsibility. Until Tuesday, the region had been largely free of the daily hit-and-run attacks plaguing U.S. troops in the central and western parts of the country.
However, Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram said British troops would review their long-standing policy of patrolling in berets instead of helmets and body armor -- a policy aimed at earning the trust of local residents.