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British Troops Quell Basra Revolt
British troops have quelled a co-ordinated attack in Basra by hundreds of Iraqi militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Ministry of Defence said tonight.
“Large sections” of the British-controlled city are now calm after apparently-organised, armed rebels attempted to seize key points in the city, a spokesman said.
Crowds of demonstrators – some carrying weapons – began gathering at about 7am this morning in Iraq’s second city a day after a representative of al-Sadr offered money for the capture or killing of coalition soldiers.
The bounty itself came in the wake of the publication of shocking pictures of abuse by American soldiers of Iraqi captives, which have horrified the world.
An MoD spokesman said tonight Basra was “relatively calm”,
He said the fighting had begun after crowds of demonstrators gathered throughout the city: “Within this group of demonstrators were a number of armed personnel. This armed militia, in apparently orchestrated moves, attempted to seize a number of key points in the city and engaged coalition forces.
“This was prevented by coalition forces. Demonstrators have been gradually dispersed throughout the day and large sections of the city are now calm.
“There are still a number of small incidents ongoing, but the Iraqi police and coalition are working to restore order and calm.”
Four UK soldiers were injured and two Iraqis were confirmed dead with one captured during the clashes.
The MoD confirmed the British troops did not receive serious injuries.
A spokeswoman in Basra said troops, together with Iraqi police, were continuing normal patrols to ensure the calm was maintained.
Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dominic D’Angelo said early reports suggested some of the militia may have arrived from outside Basra.
The black-garbed militiamen reportedly moved in large numbers through the city streets, opening fire on British patrols and sparking skirmishes in several neighbourhoods. A rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the US-led coalition headquarters, witnesses said.
A group of gunmen assaulted the governor’s building, trading fire with guards. British troops arrived to reinforce the guards and took control of the building, witnesses said.
A number of Iraqi demonstrators were arrested, and an MoD spokesman said they would they be handed over to the Iraqi police service for investigation under Iraqi law.
The fighting broke out just a day after al-Sadr’s senior aide Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli held in his hand what he said were documents and photographs of three Iraqi women being raped at British-run prisons in Iraq.
Al-Bahadli said 250,000 dinars (£195) would be given to anyone who captured a British soldier and 100,000 dinars (£83) for the killing of one.
He also offered cash for anyone who captured or killed a member of the Governing Council, a widely unpopular interim administration appointed by the US-led coalition 10 months ago.
Al-Sadr himself has rejected President George Bush’s apology for the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners and said that the soldiers who abused the Iraqis should be “punished the same way in the same place”.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday apologised for his troops’ “fundamentally un-American” abuse of Iraqi prisoners and warned that more horrific pictures of mistreatment were still to come.
Lynndie England, the female US army private shown in photographs smiling and pointing at naked Iraqi prisoners, has been charged by the US military with assaulting the detainees and conspiring to mistreat them.
She is the seventh US soldier charged with crimes in connection with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Photographs allegedly showing abuse of prisoners by British troops, published by the Daily Mirror newspaper, have prompted a top-level investigation by the Royal Military Police.
Najaf, Iraq — Gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rampaged through Basra and another southern Iraq city, attacking British patrols and government buildings a day after an al-Sadr aide offered worshippers money for capturing or killing coalition soldiers.
The aide, Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, offered the rewards in response to the mistreatment and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards — a sign that the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison was spilling over into the confrontation between U.S. troops and Mr. al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia.
Mr. al-Sadr also pointed to Abu Ghraib in a sermon he delivered at Friday prayers in Kufa before thousands of worshippers. “What sort of freedom and democracy can we expect from you (Americans) when you take such joy in torturing Iraqi prisoners?” Mr. al-Sadr said, his shoulders draped with a white coffin shroud symbolizing his readiness for martyrdom.
Saturday's clashes took place in the cities of Amarah and Basra, the strongest show of force in the area in days by the al-Mahdi Army — and perhaps an attempt to raise a diversion while the U.S military intensifies its crackdown on Mr. al-Sadr in his heartland, the holy Shiite cities of Najaf, Kufa and Karbala. U.S. forces have been gradually moving against al-Sadr strongpoints in those cities, and fighting has killed dozens over the past week.
U.S. troops backed by tanks entered Karbala from two directions on Saturday, blocking roads leading to the Imam Hussein Shrine at the city center. Troops traded fire with al-Sadr gunmen, and two armored vehicles were seen in flames.
Black-garbed al-Mahdi Army militia were out in force on Basra's streets, exchanging fire with passing British patrols and sparking skirmishes in several neighbuorhoods. A fierce gun battle broke out in front of the Iraqi Central Bank, and gunmen seized a key bridge on the main route from the city to points south.
A group of gunmen assaulted the governor's building, and British troops moved in to reinforce the guards and take control of the building. British armored vehicles pursued large numbers of gunmen into Basra's impoverished Hanaya neighborhood. Unable to enter the district's small alleys, the British traded fire with militiamen firing from behind buildings.
British troops in some 50 vehicles surrounded Mr. al-Sadr's headquarters in the city in an hours-long standoff with militiamen inside. Mr. al-Bahadli led a group of dozens of gunmen who took control of a main intersection on the southern side of Basra, witnesses said.
At least two Iraqis were killed and three British soldiers wounded in the Basra fighting, a British military spokesman said.
Gunmen attacked a military convoy outside Amarah, lightly wounding two British soldiers and sparking shootouts in several parts of the city, as helicopter gunships hovered overhead to provide support. The troops swept briefly into Mr. al-Sadr's office, witnesses said.
Witnesses reported nine militiamen killed in the fighting, and one child was killed when his house was struck by a projectile.
Also Saturday, attackers set off a bomb outside the house of a police official in the town of Habhab, 35 miles north of Baghdad. The blast killed two women and a man from the official's family, doctors said.
Near Karbala, one Polish soldier was killed and two others injured in a road accident, when a civilian truck hit their vehicle in a convoy, said Lt. Col. Robert Strzelecki, a spokesman for Polish forces in the area.
On Friday, Mr. al-Bahadli delivered his sermon at Basra's al-Hawi mosque, telling worshippers that $350 would be given to anyone who captures a British soldier and offered $150 for killing one. He also said, “Any Iraqi who takes a female soldiers can keep her as a slave or gift to himself.”
He displayed documents and photos he claimed showed three Iraqi women being raped at British-run prisons in Iraq and called on supporters to launch jihad, or holy war, against British troops in this southern city.
U.S. officials have expressed fears that Iraqi outrage over widely published photos of Iraqis being stripped and humiliated by their guards at Abu Ghraib could fuel attacks on American or other coalition soldiers.
The al-Mahdi Army militia led an uprising across the south in early April, battling with coalition troops and seizing control of government buildings. But its strength largely receded in Basra, compared to Najaf, Karbala and Kufa, closer to Baghdad.
The U.S. military has vowed to put down the al-Mahdi Army and capture Mr. al-Sadr, wanted on charges of killing a rival sheik last year, but troops have had to move carefully, since Mr. al-Sadr's fighters are entrenched around the holiest Shiite shrines in the world.
Still, clashes have intensified over the past week as the military seeks to hike up the pressure. Fighting in Karbala and Najaf on Friday killed at least 23 Iraqis, including six members of a family.
“Yes, yes, to freedom! Yes, yes, to independence,” the crowd chanted as Mr. al-Sadr preached at Kufa's mosque. Outside, al-Mahdi Army fighters — at least one carrying an anti-aircraft gun — milled about the streets in large numbers.
Mr. al-Sadr dismissed apologies from President Bush over the abuse at Abu Ghraib. “I tell this to Bush,” Mr. al-Sadr said. “Your statements are not enough. They (the guards) must be punished in kind.”