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British forces arresting hundreds of low-level Baath leaders in southern Iraq

UMM QASR, Iraq—British coalition forces are sweeping up hundreds of low-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party throughout southern Iraq to stop guerrilla attacks and win the confidence of average Iraqis.

But relatives of those arrested say the British are targeting innocent people with no ties to the Iraqi army or Saddam's Baathist regime.

"They broke through our front door and came in with machine guns," said Fatya Mohammed, 49, sobbing. "They took my son and husband. They are not with the Baathists. They had no weapons. The soldiers didn't find anything."

She was among dozens of Iraqis who waited for hours Monday in front of a coalition prisoner of war holding facility to see whether their relatives were inside. Women dressed in traditional black robes called abayas held each other and wept. Men begged Westerners for water as the desert sun beat down.

In recent days, British commandos have targeted high-level Iraqi military and Baathist officials in so-called "snatch operations" inside Basra and other Iraqi cities. But a little-known campaign against Saddam's low-level supporters is also taking place.

British military officials say they go after legitimate targets, not innocent civilians. Yet they acknowledge that mistakes have been made. Soldiers have picked up an Iraqi with Parkinson's disease and aged farmers.

"In the fog of war, some of our people captured a 70-year-old Bedouin farmer," said Maj. Rachel Grimes, a spokeswoman for the POW facility, which has about 3,000 prisoners ranging from Iraqi soldiers to police officers.

Relatives of POWs tell of family members being picked up while getting water from a tanker or for having camouflage pants.

"They took my son-in-law today by the water tanker," said Rasmia Hameed. "They saw him bald and thought he was a soldier. They humiliated him in front of other people. He's not a criminal."

"The whole country is Baathist," said Hurria Hameed, whose husband was taken away by British soldiers in a raid on their house. "It was the only way to get a job."

The campaign illustrates the struggle coalition forces face in winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Most Iraqis have welcomed British and American soldiers with a muted response. And many are still skeptical of the coalition's intentions.

"Is it a liberation or an occupation?" asked Walaa Muhagar, 20, as he stood outside the POW facility here. The front yard was still laden with Iraqi mines.

British soldiers, Muhagar said, raided his family home at 4.30 a.m. Sunday in the town of al Khor Zubayr and took his brother. Iraqi informants wearing gas masks to conceal their identities were with the soldiers.

Muhagar said villagers who did not like his brother may have manipulated the British soldiers into arresting him. "I'm afraid people may not like you and then turn you in for money," said Muhagar.

British soldiers at the POW facility, which can hold as many 15,000 prisoners, say they have taken careful measures to ensure they are going after the right people, and information is carefully screened.

Some were being released on Monday. One was a man with his three small children who had been picked up just that morning. Another had been held for 11 days, since the first day of the war.

"When I go home, I'm going to wrap my head in a towel and relax," said Ghasan Adlan, a big man with short-cropped hair who said interrogators accused him of being a Baath party official.

"I'm not going to leave my house."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.