Riot follows copter crash in Basra

British chopper apparently shot down, killing soldiers, in sign of souring relations


BASRA, Iraq -- A fiery melee erupted after a British helicopter was apparently shot down yesterday over a wealthy residential neighborhood of this southern city, in the latest sign of souring relations between Iraq's majority Shiites and the U.S.-led multinational forces in the country's south.

An Iraqi official said that a rocket brought down the chopper and that all four British soldiers aboard died in the crash. A British military official in Basra confirmed that the crash resulted in casualties but did not disclose details. If hostile fire caused the crash, it is believed to be the first downing of a British helicopter in the Shiite south.

By the time the smoke cleared and an all-night curfew was imposed in parts of the city, at least four Iraqis lay dead and 20 others had been injured, either in the crash or the ensuing skirmishes between Molotov-cocktail-wielding youths and British soldiers.

The chopper crash and riot marked a nadir in relations between Britain's 8,500 soldiers in Iraq's south and Basra's Shiite population, which was oppressed under Saddam Hussein's regime and which initially welcomed the U.S.-led invasion.

Relations had so soured that Basra's provincial authorities had cut off official communications with their British counterparts until Thursday. "Until this incident, things seemed to be moving in a positive direction," British Army Maj. Sebastian Muntz said in a phone conversation from Basra.

Many Iraqis say they fear that Basra, just miles from Iran and believed to be heavily under its sway, could become a battleground between London and Tehran in their dispute over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions. U.S., British and Iraqi officials have accused Iranians of interfering in Iraq by supplying weapons and training to Shiite militias, including radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Yesterday's troubles began with a thundering explosion as the helicopter crashed into a house. As smoke, fire and soot rose from the site, British soldiers cordoned off the upscale Saiee district, an area of large single-family homes near the governor's office and several compounds housing British personnel.

Residents gathering near the scene cheered the crash and chanted, "Long live the Mahdi Army." Al-Sadr's militia has had numerous run-ins with British authorities in the south.

In other violence, a U.S. soldier who had been wounded by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Friday and at least 20 Iraqis around the country were reported killed yesterday.

In Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, a man wearing an Iraqi military uniform and a bomb strapped to his waist sneaked onto an Iraqi army base and blew himself up, killing four officers and injuring one.

A gunfight broke out Friday evening between suspected insurgents and an Iraqi army patrol in the Sunni city of Ramadi, leaving two dead and three injured.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, gunmen shot up a barbershop, killing the barber and injuring two others in what might be part of attacks by Sunni Islamic extremists who consider the shaving of beards sinful.

The corpses of five Sunnis, apparently victims of sectarian violence, were brought to Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital on Friday night. Six bodies showing signs of torture and shot execution-style were discovered yesterday in Baghdad. Roadside bombs and mortar rounds in and around the capital killed two people.

Talks over the formation of a new government continued yesterday in Baghdad, with politicians in the capital's Green Zone hammering out a formula for doling out Cabinet posts.

Some Shiite and Kurdish politicians said that a Cabinet could be named and approved by the time the 275-member Council of Representatives convenes Wednesday, but others said they doubted that the government could take shape so quickly.

Saleh Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker, said the main blocs had all but given up on the idea of appointing competent technocrats to key posts and were determined to abide by a sectarian spoils system.

Borzou Daragahi and Othman Ghanim write for the Los Angeles Times.

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