Clash in Basra brings Iraq war home for Britain

September 21, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,Sun foreign reporter

LONDON -- Britain was reminded yesterday that it was in a war in Iraq, the fighting arriving in TV broadcasts and newspaper front pages, showing a British soldier engulfed in flames pulling himself out of his tank in the southern city of Basra.

As American officials announced that insurgents had killed 10 American troops and security officers in attacks across Iraq since Friday, the British found themselves consumed in Basra, which had been one of the most stable parts of the country.

On Monday British soldiers there fought not insurgents but Iraqi police whom the British had helped train.

Television showed the British soldier escaping his tank, the soldier on fire, jumping to the ground and limping out of camera range as Iraqi civilians threw rocks and gasoline bombs. They attacked British forces and rioted in the streets after an armored vehicle was used in an effort to rescue two commandos.

The incident began when British military officials accused Iraqi police of arresting the commandos and then handing them over to Iraqi militias. According to varying accounts by Iraqi authorities, the commandos, wearing civilian clothes, had fired on a police patrol, or they were detained for behaving suspiciously and being seen to collect information.

British forces used armored vehicles to knock down the walls of the Iraqi police station where the commandos were believed to be held, and the violence soon involved hundreds of Iraqis and the burning British tank. The two commandos were later found at a house in the city, British authorities said.

"We don't actually know the details of why these people were handed over - whether it was under threats or by collusion, or whatever," the British defense secretary, John Reid, told the BBC. "What we do know is that under the law they should have been handed back to the British forces themselves."

"It is a very unfortunate development that the British forces should try to release their forces the way it happened," Haider al-Ebadi, an adviser to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, told a news conference in Baghdad. The prime minister's office then issued a statement saying Iraq's interior ministry was investigating.

"We will await the outcome of that inquiry," the statement said. "In the meantime we urge all sides to remain calm."

The governor of Basra said the commandos had indeed been handed over to the al-Mahdi Army, the militia controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "Police who are members of the militia group took them to a nearby house after jail authorities learned the facility was about to be stormed," said the governor, Mohammed al-Waili.

Meanwhile, an attack Monday in Mosul killed a State Department security officer along with three private security guards as their convoy left the U.S. embassy's regional office there, while two bombings yesterday near Ramadi in Anbar province each killed two soldiers. Yesterday afternoon, an American military policeman was killed by a homemade bomb.

Another American soldier was killed Friday when a bomb went off near his tank during patrol operations. Those latest deaths raised to more than 1,900 the number of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

In London, the pictures of the violence made the war seem very real.

Video of the burning soldier in Basra was shown repeatedly yesterday on the BBC and other news stations but the photographs in newspapers seemed more haunting, showing a man frozen in flames.

The pictures were certainly among the most gripping and disturbing of the war, the spectacle of a man on fire, somehow isolated further by the height of the tank he stands upon, looking for escape as children who looked to be 12 or 13 years old aimed to stone him.

In one photograph, distributed by Reuters, the soldier is standing atop the tank, bent over, with his hands apparently on his knees as if he is trying to catch his breath.

His face cannot be seen. He is wearing a helmet which appears to be on fire, but the flames are blowing backward, over his shoulders and to the middle of his back and not forward.

In the background, fires ignited by other thrown gas bombs can be seen rising high above the tank's height.

More than 70 percent of the British public opposed involvement before the war began. Polls since then show more than half of the country is in favor of pulling British troops out now. And if little progress was evident in Iraq before the images of the soldier afire, the photos seemed to show a country going backward.

Tension has reportedly been growing between British troops and the Shiite police and militias that operate in Basra. Iraqi authorities say the police force has been infiltrated by Shiite militiamen from three groups: the Mahdi Army; the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution; and Hezbollah in Iraq, a small group based in the marshlands in the south.

Basra, with 1.5 million residents, was considered one of Iraq's safer big cities, escaping the Sunni-led violence in the north. But in the last two months there have been dozens of murders and at least eight people in U.S. and British diplomatic convoys have been killed.

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