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When British troops rolled into Northern Ireland 25 years ago, Catholics greeted them with tea and flowers. They saw them as saviors, come to rescue them from Protestant mobs burning down their homes.

But, within a week, Protestants were calling the British soldiers "their" army while Catholics had come to regard them as occupiers.Now the situation may be reversed. If the Irish Republican Army holds to its promise of a "complete cessation of hostilities," the British will be training their guns on Protestant extremists bent on derailing the cease-fire.

Both sides have been bloodied, and bloody-handed, in what has come to be known as "The Troubles." Although the death count is not high for a quarter century of sectarian warfare - 3,168 killed in Northern Ireland and 250 outside the British-ruled province - Protestant and Catholic terrorists are equally guilty of appalling atrocities.

The Protestant Ulster Defense Association is credited with killing the most people in any one day - 33 dead and 120 wounded - by detonating four car bombs in the Irish Republic on May 17, 1974.

Six months later, the IRA retaliated by bombing two pubs in the British city of Birmingham, killing 21 and wounding 182. It was not only the worst mass murder in British peacetime history but also led to the gravest miscarriage of justice in that country.

The film "In the Name of the Father" tells the story of the "Birmingham Six," who served 16 years behind bars for a crime they never committed.

Overall, about a third of the casualties in Northern Ireland have been British troops or policemen of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. But most of the more than 10,000 bombings and 3,000 shootings in the province have been aimed at civilians.

Even Britain's royal family has been targeted. An IRA bomb killed the queen's 79-year-old cousin, Earl Mountbatten, on his yacht in 1979. Another IRA bomb killed five at the 1985 Conservative Party convention in Brighton. And a 1993 bombing killed nine Protestant customers in a Belfast fish and chips shop. Machine-gunners of the Ulster Freedom Fighters retaliated with a Halloween night attack on a Catholic pub, shouting "trick or treat" as they mowed down two men and five women.

What is all this savagery about?

The issue is quite simple: Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants, who enjoy a 60-40 majority, want to remain loyal to the British crown. Most Catholics want to unite with the Irish Republic, where the Protestants would be outnumbered 4-to-1 and have to live with laws and a culture quite different from that of mainland Britain.

There are now 14,000 policemen and more than 17,000 British soldiers in the province. But they have been unable to halt the deadly cycle of tit-for-tat violence - and five previous cease-fires have broken down.

If Protestant extremists continue their attacks, one wonders how long the IRA will abide by this one.