British troops are on the verge of entering Basra, the British press said on Wednesday, after reports that Saddam Hussein's forces had used mortars to quash an uprising from the city's civilian population.
"The British Army was poised to enter Basra last night (Tuesday) amid reports that well-armed forces loyal to Saddam Hussein were using mortars to quell a popular uprising in the city," said The Independent.
Other press reports suggested that Britain's 7th Armoured Brigade - known as the Desert Rats - would wait until daybreak before making a push into Iraq's second city.
"If we were to go in darkness that is not a good time to be able to identify civilians and distinguish them from people fighting for Saddam," one Desert Rat told The Daily Telegraph.
"That is not an easy task even in daylight but it will be much easier than when it is dark and difficult to see clearly," the source said.
Major General Robin Brims - commander of the British forces surrounding Basra - was making plans on Tuesday night to move tanks into the city centre on Wednesday to help the rebels and to try and prevent their slaughter, the newspaper said.
Saddam's troops defending the city include the regular Iraqi army's 51st Mechanised Division, which crushed a Shiite revolt in Basra after the 1991 Gulf War.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged on Tuesday that the West had not done enough in the past to help those trying to rebel against Saddam and his regime.
"My message to them (Iraqis) is that this time we will not let you down - Saddam and his regime will be removed," Blair said on the eve of a visit to Washington to meet US President George W. Bush.
Despite the strong message, The Financial Times reported that the city was not considered a military target and that British troops were planning to launch only 'smash and grab' raids into Basra.
According to intelligence sources quoted in The Daily Telegraph, the Basra uprising began after Saddam's most trusted lieutenant, Ali Hassan al-Majid, ordered a leading Shiite politician to be executed.
The execution by Al-Majid - known as "Chemical Ali" because of his alleged role in a chemical weapons massacre at Halabja in 1988 - split the local Baath party and led to the fighting between the Shiites and the Fedayeen militia, the newspaper said.
"The insurrection suggests that the Anglo-American message - that this is a war against Saddam's regime, not the Iraqi people - is at last getting through," said the Telegraph.
"If the uprising is successful, its significance cannot be overestimated," it said.
The newspaper said that, while Basra may not be very significant militarily to the campaign, it is of huge importance politically and it is there that the allies hope to establish their credentials as liberators rather than invaders.
"Saddam's shelling of his own people in Basra shows his evil knows no bounds," said a report in the pro-war Sun.
"It's population can't wait to be rid of him. Their uprising against a tyrant who has oppressed them for so long could be contagious. Basra today - Baghdad tomorrow," said the tabloid.
But The Guardian warned of "caution over hopeful omens in the south."
While the reported attempt by some inhabitants of Basra to mount a popular insurrection against Saddam's forces could prove to be the most encouraging development since the war began, "another phenomenon is manifest in the Sunni heartlands of the north," the newspaper said.
"Just as British voters now rally around Mr. Blair, so too are many Iraqis there rallying around their flag. They may not support Saddam. But they do oppose what many see as a gross insult to national honour," it said.