Civilian uprising reported in Basra, Iraq denies

Updated on Mar 26, 2003 09:41 AM IST

British forces said 20 Iraqi fighters were killed and a pro-Saddam politician was captured near Basra.

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PTI | ByAssociated Press, Southern Iraq

British forces killed about 20 Iraqi fighters and seized a senior Baath Party politician near Iraq's second-largest city on Tuesday, and repelled an Iraqi counterattack in Basra, a British military officer said.

Col. Chris Vernon, speaking in Kuwait, said British forces raided the local headquarters of Saddam Hussein's Baath party in Az Zubayr, about 16 kilometre southwest of Basra. Richard Gaisford, a British reporter embedded with British troops, said Iraqi troops were firing mortars at civilian protesters staging an uprising in Basra, and that coalition forces were firing missiles at the pro-Saddam forces.

Gaisford said British troops backed by tanks and armoured vehicles were massing on Basra's outskirts and were planning to enter the city. He said there were two large explosions around 1800 GMT that totally destroyed Baath party headquarters.

Officials at the Coalition Press Information Centre in Kuwait could not confirm the reports.

"We've had reports we can't substantiate as of yet of an uprising in Basra. We are closely monitoring the situation," US Marine Maj. David C. Andersen said.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahhaf denied any uprising in Basra.

"The situation is stable. Resistance is continuing and we are teaching them more lessons. This announcement (of an uprising)...stems from a feeling of frustration" on part of the British, al-Sahhaf told Qatar-based satellite station Al Jazeera.

Troops with the British 7th Armoured and 3rd Commando brigades have been battling at least 1,000 irregular Iraqi units outside of Basra for two days. The units inside Basra are believed to including members of Saddam's Fedayeen, the Baath party paramilitary organisation, as well as elite Republican Guard units.

In Basra, Iraqi irregulars staged a counterattack against British forces, moving southeast toward the Al Faw peninsula and the 3rd Commando Brigade, Vernon said. British units "brought in close air support, and destroyed about 20 armoured vehicles, including tanks," he said.

British forces put up loudspeakers at Basra's edge, broadcasting radio messages to Basra residents, encouraging them to oppose forces supporting Saddam.

Vernon said no artillery was being fired in central Basra "even though we are being fired on from the center by their artillery." He told BBC television earlier that Iraqis were using human shields to defend Basra: "7th Armoured Brigade have made reports of gunmen, irregular forces, coming forward with civilians in front of them _ we assume being coerced."

"Clearly, we cannot engage the gunmen for risk of causing undue civilian death," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday in Qatar, US Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said militia members were passing themselves off as civilians, including in one attack on Monday north of Basra in which Iraqi forces sent in tanks as well as civilian buses and cars to join the battle with Fedayeen forces inside.

The decision on Tuesday to declare parts of Basra military targets came after aid agencies warned that a humanitarian crisis loomed in the city of 1.3 million people, with electricity and water supplies cut off and hospitals out of supplies.

"In a few weeks, when the population has exhausted its supplies, we will need to intervene," said Christiane Berthiaume of the World Food Program, which distributed food under the UN oil-for-food program. She said government warehouses were near empty. Poor-quality water could cause cholera or an outbreak of diarrhoea, which already is responsible for 75 percent of deaths of children under 5 in Iraq, Ian Simpson of the World Health Organisation said.

Power was cut Friday as coalition forces tried to secure Basra. Other disabled pumping stations were operating again by Monday, restoring the water supply to 40 percent of the city, the Red Cross said.

Basra is Iraq's main seaport and lies in southern Iraq's oil-producing region. It is a mostly Shiite Muslim city; a 1991 uprising by Shiites in Basra was crushed by the Iraqi military during that Gulf war.

At a Tuesday news conference in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "Basra is surrounded and cannot be used as an Iraqi base ... But in Basra there are pockets of Saddam's most fiercely loyal security services who are holding out. They are contained but still able to inflict casualties on our troops, and so we are proceeding with caution."

Earlier, officials identified the first British combat fatality as Sgt. Steven Mark Roberts, 33, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who was killed Monday at Az Zubayr. Sixteen other British servicemen have died in the conflict, though not by enemy fire.

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